Why 9-1-1 may NEVER work


After a brief hiatus spanning the past few weeks, I have had some time to reflect on the existing problems with emergency calling, and refocus on the root cause of the problem. Any regular subscriber to my blog or podcast is well aware of the tragic incident that happened on December 1, 2013 where the life of Kari René Hunt ended in a tragic incident in a Marshall Texas hotel room, when her nine-year-old daughter was unable to directly dial 9-1-1 without first dialing an access code of 9.

But getting a call out to 9-1-1 is just the beginning of the problem. Unfortunately, it is very much out of the control of the caller at this point, and the likelihood of the call being successful is at the mercy of an archaic, antiquated public switched telephone network and databases that may or may not be accurate.

From time to time, Hank Hunt (Kari’s father) will call me with a technology question about E9-1-1 as he tries to understand where technology failed and took the life of his daughter away from him. Surprisingly in the last eight months, Hank has become impressively steeped in the technology. As it turns out he was traveling through Marshall Texas this past weekend and happened to drive by the Baymont Inn and Suites at 5301 East End Boulevard South. Here is what happened on Sunday in Hank’s words:

“I stopped by this hotel Sunday, (the one Kari was murdered in) I hadn’t intended to but ‘swung” in there, got out and went in. The clerk asked if he could help and I asked him if I could dial 9-1-1 from this hotel if I rented a room there.

He didn’t know.

I explained who I was and why I was asking and he, to my amazement said, “Would you like to go to a room and find out?”.

Well, can you guess what I said?

I had him call the Marshall Police Departments non-emergency line and explain to them that we were going to test the 9-1-1 phone system and they very politely said OK. He then took me to room 111 where he opened the door for me and I entered the room.

I had to walk by the restroom, couldn’t look in there, and I found the phone. I picked up the receiver, asked him to be there when I dialed and he walked over to me and I dialed 9-1-1. Busy signal. I looked up at him, thought of my grand daughter and what she went through at this very hotel so I dialed 9-1-1 again, and then again, and then one more time.

Just like my grand daughter did.

Busy signal every time.

The only difference?

I wasn’t hearing my mother being murdered in the background.

The clerk took the receiver from me, dialed 9-9-1-1 and after 1 ring a Dispatcher answered, “9-1-1, what is your emergency?”

Precious words my grand daughter never heard but so desperately sought. [He] asked her, “What location information do you see?” and she answered,

“The only information I see is the call is coming from the La Quinta Inn.”

This hotel was La Quinta about 5 years ago. It is Baymont Inn now. So, not only has the very hotel where my daughter was murdered NOT corrected their phone system to directly call 9-1-1 they haven’t even corrected the name of the business.”

Alarm bells started going off in my head. There was still a La Quinta Inn and Suites in Marshall, and a quick search on the Internet revealed that it was just a half a mile down the road at 6015 East End Blvd. South!

PHOTO CREDIT: GOOGLE MAPS

So let’s think about this; Had the 9-1-1 call been successful, and the call taker was not able to confirm the address, or the hotel name, it may have been dispatched according to the ALI record as the La Quinta Inn on SE End Boulevard, and not the Baymont Inn on SE End Boulevard; A very simple, yet easily understandable mistake.

This is a very disturbing thought. Not only has the entire premise of our 9-1-1 routing architecture been invalidated by the fact that telephone numbers (ANI) no longer have to equal fixed locations on the planet, the database that we are cross referencing to (ALI) are grossly out of date, difficult to update and maintain, and just plain wrong as in the case in Marshall Texas.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one that is concerned about the inaccuracy of ALI. On July 28th the Colorado PUC issued Emergency Rules Governing Automatic Location Identification Service. In a statement located on their website they have published the opinion that they had concerns, specifically:

  • The databases used by either CenturyLink or Intrado were NOT accurate and updated.
  • That CenturyLink and Intrado have NOT coordinated and communicated with other service providers to ensure accurate location information in existing databases.
  • That the connections and other functions necessary for ALI services were NOT reliable.
  • That offering separate ALI services to certain areas of the state WOULD endanger the current pricing structure that allows for rural areas of the state to afford 9-1-1 services that might otherwise be too expensive.
  • That CenturyLink or Intrado had NOT communicated adequately with PSAPs and 9-1-1 Authorities in the state concerning the transition.
  • That all systems and connections had NOT been adequately tested and had NOT been proven to be sufficiently reliable.

The plan to let Intrado sell the ALI services direct to PSAPs has now been challenged based on the perceived inaccuracy of ALI databases.

This seemingly innocuous problem is actually a huge fracture in the core logic of our public safety communications network. If we don’t stop and correct this horrible inexactitude more lives could be lost, and people will question “How did this happen?”

Unfortunately, the answer will be “Because we let it happen.”

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NG911: The Industry’s Most Misunderstood Buzzword

What exactly is next-generation 911? When people talk about it, they use the phrase like a noun, yet it’s not a person and it’s not a place. You may consider it a “thing,” although I can tell you that it most certainly is not, at least in the physical sense.

NG911 is not something you can buy and plug into your existing public safety network, miraculously transforming a legacy environment into a “next generation” environment. And yet, it’s often described that way.

Personally, I believe NG911 is best described as a true “solution.” It’s comprised of several components, each with a specific Functional Element that provides what the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) describes as a functional framework that provides definitive services that work in harmony. By themselves, any one of these components itself is not “next-generation 911.”

The current state

Across the country, dispatchers work around in the clock in more than 6,100 emergency contact centers, also known as public-safety answering points, or PSAPs. The underlying technology that powers public-safety answering points was created in the era of landline voice, and is truly optimized for people who call 911 from a traditional telephone.

Today, the great majority of 911 calls are mobile, but most public-safety answering points aren’t designed to effectively handle mobile—if you’ve ever called 911 from your smartphone, invariably the first question you’ll be asked is, “What’s the location of your emergency?”

Some 10 percent of 911 centers (so far) have adopted text-to-911: technology that promises the ability for people to send photos, video and text their emergency responder, optionally share their GPS coordinates and get relevant information delivered back to them via text.

The reality is far more modest: Most text-to-911 rollouts are bolted onto legacy infrastructures, hobbling their future capabilities. Most just allow back-and-forth text—no location, no direct multimedia.

Poorly-defined terminology

Nearly every week, new headlines tout that a public-safety answering point somewhere has “upgraded to NG911 technology” by adding text-to-911 technology. Adding new technology to an old infrastructure doesn’t magically make it a next-generation solution.

A good litmus test that can be applied to establish an agency’s level of NG911 readiness is to analyze how the agency defines NG911. If it’s using NG911 as a noun, there’s likely to be a disjointed understanding of the base premise behind the technology and architecture.

“We’ve implemented a NG911 PSAP solution,” the agency’s IT manager might tell a journalist, and there the cycle of misunderstanding begins.

The industry is doing a great disservice to the public by allowing these misconceptions to endure, as they lead citizens to believe they have something they do not.

The future state of 911

A true NG911 solution means dispatchers can receive voice, video, text, email and other forms of multimedia on a SIP-enabled infrastructure. NG911 is designed to accept PIDF-LO data in the call setup header that can contain other relevant contextual information. To truly describe an upgraded environment as next-generation 911, an Emergency Services IP Network containing required i3 Functional Elements (as defined by NENA) must be built and deployed, replacing the legacy E911 network.

Agencies may argue their system is “NG911-ready,” “NG911-capable” or some other derivative, but in reality those phrases are semantics being used as a technical loophole. Most people simply don’t understand the subtle nuances of those terms: People hear “next-generation 911” and equate that to being better, more capable and something they should spend money on.

When a network outage invariably occurs, the public is left to wonder, “What happened to that shiny new next-generation thing that was featured on the news and cost all that money?”

As text-to-911 is increasingly deployed across the country, the term “next-generation 911” will continue to crop up in the news. We need true NG911 services, delivered over a real Emergency Services IP network. If we accept anything less, we’re shortchanging ourselves and the public of a life-saving technology that’s available, but not deployed.

Kari’s Law Introduced in the Senate, Making ‘911’ Safer for Hotels and Office Buildings

Last week, Avaya celebrated the 48th anniversary of America’s first 911 call by announcing its support of Kari’s Law (S. 2553), a new Senate bill introduced earlier this month designed to improve 911 services for multiline phone systems, most commonly found in hotels and office buildings.

The bill would amend the Communications Act of 1934 to require phone vendors and individual buildings to make sure people could connect directly with emergency services without having to press ‘1’ or ‘9’ first. The bill would also add two new requirements—outgoing ‘911’ calls would connect directly to emergency services without local interference, while also notifying onsite personnel that a ‘911’ call was made.

As an industry leader in 911 communications technology, Avaya has played a leading role in clearing the path for Kari’s Law at the federal level, working with the FCC and various members of Congress to advocate for this important, life-saving bill.

Kari’s Law is named in honor of Kari Hunt, who was killed by her estranged husband in late 2013 at a motel in Northeast Texas. One of Hunt’s children tried repeatedly to dial ‘911’ from the motel room’s phone, but wasn’t able to get through—the motel required people to dial ‘9’ to get an outside line.

“When a 9-year-old child is brave, mature and determined enough to call 911 in an emergency, she should be answered,” said Kari’s father, Hank Hunt. “Kari’s Law has been successful at every juncture in the past two years because of the help and involvement of Avaya. To have an ally such as Avaya, in a goal such as this, is a sure winner.

“The caring and thoughtful gestures given to us from Avaya are scarce attributes in a corporation. The knowledge and experience Avaya brings to the table is reassuring, and the confidence that we have knowing this kind of institution is behind us is comforting.”

In the three years since Kari Hunt’s death, Mark Fletcher, Avaya’s Chief Architect for Worldwide Public Safety Solutions, has spearheaded the company’s work around Kari’s Law. Check out his recent podcast interview with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on the new bill. If you’d like to get involved, sign the online petition for Kari’s Law, which has more than half a million supporters to date.

Solving India’s 911 Problem: Real Solution, or Knee-Jerk Reaction?

This article originally appeared on Avaya’s NG911 blog.

Emergency services in India have evolved over the years. But instead of consolidating access numbers, the decision was made to implement different numbers for everything. At the 9-1-1 Goes to Washington event in March 2014, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai referred to this problem during his address to the public safety community:

“We in the United States often take our 911 system for granted. But my recent trip to India reminded me how fortunate we are. In India, there isn’t a single number that people can call for help. There’s one number to reach the police, another for the fire department, and yet another if you need an ambulance. There are even different numbers for senior citizens, women, and children to use. I learned that many Indian households have a long list of numbers stuck on their walls and refrigerator doors to remind them which number to call for which emergency. All of this leads to needless confusion and delayed response times.”

In an effort to solve the confusion, India’s Women & Child Development Minister, Maneka Gandhi, developed a proposal that would allow people to connect to emergency services by ‘pressing and holding the 9 button‘ on any cell phone. The idea was given the go-ahead in a recent meeting of representatives from the country’s service providers, as well as mobile phone manufacturers.

Apps were discussed, but dismissed, as they have not been effective elsewhere in the world. For an app to be useful, people need to install the app and keep it up to date. Unfortunately, most people don’t plan that far ahead.

Additionally, pressing ‘9’ on an older analog cell phone could effectively be implemented at the carrier level without excluding analog cellular phones, which remain prevalent across India.

While I have to commend the essential simplicity of this idea, it does raise a few concerns that may not have been completely vetted, and may actually have some unintended negative impact:

  • How long is a ‘long press’ exactly?
  • Can it be canceled?
  • What will multiple rapid presses do?
  • Pocket dialing is a huge problem. How many misdial events will this potentially generate, having a negative impact on public safety resources, which are already running paper thin?

Without a study being done on the misdial call load on PSAPs alone (something that can be tracked and measured) it appears this solution may be a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to a problem, and has the possibility of making the situation worse by impacting public safety.

Another point to consider is the potential confusion this may cause to citizens. Clearly, 911, 112, and 999 are well-known emergency access numbers globally. They all have been promoting the concept of  “anywhere, anytime, and on any device” for more than a decade.

While this addresses mobile phones, it is likely the ‘long press’ of 9 on telephone devices that are NOT cell phones could be difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce or replicate. This would then eliminate the universality of access to emergency services we currently enjoy today.

After two years of fighting a policy battle in the US, we are just beginning to win the “No 9 Needed” battle with MLTS PBX systems. This initiative, know best under the name ‘Kari’s Law,’  requires MLTS systems to recognize just the digits 911, 112 and 999 as emergency numbers; effectively eliminating the “9” normally needed to get an outside line. The popular tagline for Kari’s law is “No 9 Needed”, but now we need to modify this message to be “Except in India, where you just press 9”? Hank Hunt may have a comment or two on that.

The IETF states that the numbers for emergency services globally should be 911, and 112. In the UK, 999 has been locally ingrained, and although attempts and suggestions have been made over the years to change it, history will live on, and the best that we will see is support for 911 and 112 in the local PSTN, and 999 will continue to live on in perpetuity.

Clearly the problem will continue, but it is good that people are looking to solve the issues. I would highly recommend the Ministers of India talk to the experts at NENA EENA and APCO International before potentially life-changing decisions like this are made without completely vetting the technical and social impact of the decision.