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.”

Related Articles:

When Is Enough Actually Enough? Exploring the Lagging Face of Public Safety (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series, Avaya Vice President and Chief Technologist for software-defined architecture Jean Turgeon opened up a much-needed conversation about the current state of public safety and E911 (which, for the record, doesn’t look good). Just consider that a 2014 study of 1,000 public safety answering points (PSAPs) found that only 18.7% are confident in the location data they receive from wireless callers.

It’s no surprise that technology is vital for improving public safety. The way I see it, this is like a three-legged stool. We need:

  1. Originating devices to support location accuracy

  2. 911 call center networks capable of receiving the information

  3. A Public Safety Emergency Services IP Network to connect them

PSAPs must ensure all three legs are sturdy and of equal length, otherwise fundamental capabilities will be severely limited or missing altogether.

Let’s take a look at the networking side of public safety for a moment. Today in the U.S., there are life-threatening complexities associated with dialing 911 for no other reason than the restrictive legacy networks that transport these calls.

That’s a terrifying thought.

Many times the system programming in hotels and office buildings has similar restrictions. This is why I fight tirelessly in support of Kari’s Law, a U.S. Senate bill introduced earlier this year designed to improve 911 services for multiline phone systems. The 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 because the motel required people to dial 9 to get an outside line. This is a fact I continue to repeat, as I still find people who have not heard of this tragedy, or gave it a second thought.

At the same time, the majority of the emergency call centers today have a serious problem with grade of service. It’s something that’s often in the news, constantly talked about, but rarely acted upon. Our public safety networks are something rarely thought about. Consider the fact that there are somewhere close to 6,000 911 call centers across the U.S. today. Given this, what do you think is the average number of positions staffed in those centers? You likely think dozens, and maybe even hundreds. In actuality, that number is a sparse four people.

So, what happens when all four employees at the average 911 center are tied up because 20 people are calling about the same car accident? Those calls will likely overflow to a neighboring town or city, which then also immediately becomes tied up. This cascading effect starts to immediately make sense how quickly several local governments can be taken out of service. This becomes a serious issue when a person is having a heart attack and dials 911 only to get a busy signal or to be put through to a city 10-20 miles away. A more nefarious problem is how easily it would be to disrupt the U.S. 911 network via Telephony Denial of Service (TDoS) attacks, something the FBI and Public Safety worry about daily.

Overcoming Today’s Greatest 911 Challenges
In Part 1 of this series, JT mentioned a few reasons why PSAPs may overlook infrastructure upgrades. In my opinion, there’s only one primary reason: it’s cost-prohibitive. Why? Because at one point, a handful of businesses in the industry decided they wanted to capitalize on the market by creating very specialized and expensive equipment. Because so few people understand 911, these cost-prohibitive solutions (which run on old technology with massive limitations) are widely believed to be the only options available in the market today.

It has never been more evident that almost every 911 center is currently grappling with technological, financial and operational challenges that seem difficult to overcome. As FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said July 12 in a congressional testimony: “Unless we find a way to help the nation’s [911 centers] overcome the funding, planning and operational challenges they face as commercial communications networks evolve, NG911 will remain beyond reach for much of the nation. Let me be clear on this point: 911 service quality will not stay where it is today, it will degrade if we don’t invest in NG911.”

But remember the three-legged stool, and the originating network, or the enterprise customer. For example, we recently worked with a large customer based in New England that boasted more than 25,000 network endpoints across 700 locations. This included everything from small two-person offices to regional medical centers all the way to large teaching hospitals and universities. The 911 solution this customer was originally going to deploy was estimated at $650,000 in CAPEX, in addition to a monthly recurring operational cost of about $25,000.

Thankfully, this organization came to Avaya before signing the contract and asked if we could assess the situation. After consulting with them, and examining their workflows, we engineered a new operational model that only cost $130,000 in CAPEX, and would be less than $1,500 a month in recurring operational costs. With Avaya functionalities along with technologies delivered by our trusted Select DevConnect Partner Conveyant Systems, Inc., we were able to hand this customer a half a million dollars back in CAPEX, and decreased their OPEX by $282,000 annually. The result of building an efficient 911 solution was the organization now being able to allocate hard-earned dollars towards other top-priority initiatives that had previously gone unfunded. That’s the beauty of it all.

The lesson learned and the key to easily and cost-effectively upgrading your 911 infrastructure is to not accept the status quo, and partner with the right provider for your needs. At Avaya, we know there’s a better way to deliver 911. We take pride in our commitment to driving awareness around this need. It gives us great honor to be advocates for those whose voices must be heard or whose voices have been silenced, like Kari Hunt. We’re dedicated to teaching organizations and our customers that there is in fact a way to seamlessly overcome today’s greatest 911 challenges. We hope that you’ll join us in this very important mission.

When is Enough Actually Enough? A Hard Look at the Lagging Face of Public Safety (Part 1)

When we talk about the state of public safety today, we unfortunately have to recognize the devastating tragedies that have forever affected our communities, schools and businesses worldwide. Research shows that we’re currently experiencing four times as many terrorist attacks globally than in 1990. This month alone, there have been 120 confirmed or suspected attacks—an increase from around 95 in January.

People are being targeted based on their religious beliefs, ideologies and even identities. In France, for instance, we’re seeing new laws that ban certain cultural garbs for fear of terrorist-related threats. Meanwhile, in the U.S., we’re seeing a divide between law enforcement and the very citizens that officers have sworn to serve and protect. In the Middle East, we continue to see unthinkable devastation as violence escalates daily. I understand these aren’t things we want to talk or hear about, but it’s important that we do in order to improve communication infrastructure and transform the global state of public safety and emergency response.

To this end, we’re seeing technology rapidly evolving to a point where there are next-generation solutions available that can help get us to where we need to be. For example, consider the all-new, reopened Sandy Hook Elementary School. On Dec. 14, 2012, the Newtown, CT-based grade school suffered the deadliest mass school shooting in U.S. history. Last month, however, the school reopened its doors equipped with extraordinary technology that ensures next-generation protection for children and staff this school year.

The new design boasts advanced security features that are hidden in plain sight, improving natural surveillance of the grounds. The technology also offers increased situational awareness through a series of impact-resistant windows. Overall, the hope is that the rebuilt school will be the first within the state of Connecticut to be compliant with a new state school safety code, the School Safety Infrastructure Council guidelines.

The redesigned Sandy Hook Elementary School proves that technology can reimagine the possibilities of public safety, if only we allow it to. Examples like this make it really difficult for me to accept that our current state of public safety lags so much. At Avaya, we’re doing all we can to actively bridge this gap. One massive inadequacy we’re especially passionate about improving is the accuracy of E911, or Enhanced 911.

E911 was designed to allow emergency responders to determine the location of a caller based on the caller ID. Today, however, devices have become nomadic and the phone number to location correlation is no longer a valid assumption. Fortunately, there are alternative solutions available that can detect the exact location of a device, an IoT object, or an individual by leveraging smart devices, wearable technologies, and more.

This combination of advanced technology (i.e., Wi-Fi triangulations, GPS, wearables with NFC capabilities) is a key to overcoming 911’s greatest flaw: lack of location data. These advances in technology make it possible, for example, to detect a child that has left a secure area and then immediately send an alert to emergency response teams. These different mechanisms make it possible to save lives. Imagine if someone was suffering a heart attack in an office complex. In this case, standard 911 will enable first responders to locate the building the person is in, but how do they know if the person is on the fifth floor, the 40th floor or in the basement? This same scenario applies to any suspected or proven terrorist.

All of this sounds great, but there’s one problem: for many, deploying these technologies isn’t top of mind. Just consider findings from a 2015 national investigation conducted by USA Today. After sorting through hundreds of pages of local, state and federal documents, it was discovered that:

  • The average chance of 911 getting a quick fix on location ranges from as low as 10% to as high as 95%.
  • In California, 63% of cell phone calls to 911 didn’t share location in 2014.
  • In Texas, two-thirds of cell phone calls reached 911 without an instant fix on location during 2010 to 2013.

No two ways about it: the reason why so many emergency calls today reach 911 without an accurate location is because there’s a severe technology issue at play. Public safety access points (PSAPs) still rely on technology that was designed to locate landlines, despite the fact that the number of 911 calls that come from cell phone networks is 70% to 80% and growing.

Users are evolving from land lines to wireless technologies, but PSAPs continue to remain behind, locked into technology designed in the 1960s. Despite technology being readily available, it isn’t being implemented. Why does this travesty exist? The reason for this is simple: because providers choose not to. Because it’s too costly. Because it’s too much of a hassle or inconvenience. Meanwhile, the reason for implementation is and always will be more important: because lives hang in the balance when archaic infrastructure remains in place.

The bottom line is this: there needs to be a greater movement towards next-generation methodologies of tracking one’s location. PSAPs need to effectively keep up with today’s pace of innovation in order to better serve the general public. It’s great to have a caller’s general location, but responders need richer and more relevant caller information to elevate public safety to where it needs to be today. We need to create proactive urgency around this issue—otherwise, we’re going to keep suffering preventable tragedies until someone finally decides that enough is enough.

Coming up: In Part II of this series, Avaya’s Chief Architect for Worldwide Public Safety Solutions Mark Fletcher will dig into specific technology deficiencies and how to overcome them by easily and cost-effectively upgrading your 911 infrastructure.

 

Kari’s Law Progress: Texas to implement new 911 Law

983 days. 983 days since a little girl lost her mother after a brutal stabbing, because the motel she was staying in required her to dial a “9” before 9-1-1. Because of one single digit, Kari Hunt perished.

At Avaya, my colleagues and I have fought hard alongside Hank Hunt, Kari’s father, for 983 days in the name of Kari’s Law. 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 additional requirements—outgoing 911 calls would connect directly to emergency services without local interference, while also notifying onsite personnel that a 911 call was made. With the help of FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, we’ve made progress in several states and at the Federal level, promoting Kari’s Law. The state of Texas, Kari’s home state, did an exceptionally good job in fighting for this legislation. It was signed in May 2015.

On Sept. 1, 2016 the law goes into full effect in Texas, which means that businesses in Texas must make necessary provisions NOW. The best place for information is the Texas 911 page. And the Texas CSEC has produced a helpful PSA video featured on YouTube.

Did you know all Avaya systems can be programmed to be Kari’s Law compliant without upgrades? You read that correctly. In fact, many dealers will perform this service free of charge. Customers certainly do not have to purchase anything, as this law concerns access and notification. Expensive ALI management tools are not needed. We made sure this was the case, and even fought hard for a waiver process to protect a customer from having to buy a new system.

For more complex environments and VPN users, remote locations with no trunks, etc., some specific assistance will likely be needed, but customers are advised to talk with us first, as we can apply routing logic to minimize third party costs.

If a solution is required, our Avaya DevConnect SELECT PRODUCT PARTNER solutions are:

Not in Texas? We’re still working hard to make sure Kari’s Law is passed in every state, so that no child will ever face the awful outcome that Kari’s daughter lives with every day. But a change in the law isn’t necessary to do the right thing. Set the example in your state and make sure your 911 system is fully functional without the need for extra digits. Need help? We’re here to assist.