What Really Happens When You Dial 911?

This Avaya Connected blog entry is also available as an MP3 audio file.

The most recognizable telephone number worldwide is undoubtedly 911. In fact, it’s so well-recognized that its popularity can create problems when it’s used for non-emergencies.

911 call takers often mutter to themselves, “Hey, this is 911, not 411! Emergencies only!” Unfortunately, we’ve done too well of a job marketing the number: People know that dialing 911 will get them in touch with a public safety dispatcher immediately.

The situation gets aggravated when multiple agencies can’t agree on a uniform 911 policy, as recently seen in Macomb County, Michigan, where County Executive Mark Hackel launched a campaign telling citizens to call 911 to report potholes.

Michigan State police disagreed, issuing a statement later that day advising the public not to “tie up 911 lines” with pothole calls.

Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham said he was fine getting 911 calls in his county from citizens reporting hazardous potholes. The problem is, he didn’t take into consideration how and where cellular 911 calls are routed.

For example, say you experience a pothole in one jurisdiction, but by the time you actually make the phone call to report the problem, you’ve moved into a different agency’s area of responsibility, such as the state police or another municipality.

Cell Antenna

When you place a 911 call from a cellular phone, your call attaches to the closest tower with the best signal strength. Based on the antenna face that you connect with, (there are three antenna faces on each tower, covering a 120° arc of the compass) and the municipality that is serviced by that particular antenna face, your call is routed based on your location at the start of the call.

If you didn’t immediately call after seeing the pothole, you might inadvertently be in a different jurisdiction when you do make the call. Of course, there is always the state border to consider. While 911 calls for potholes in one state might be OK, that same call in another state could get you charged with making a false 911 call.

The solution is simple: Change the leading digit from a “9” to “3,” creating the non-emergency 311 number. Many larger cities–notably New York, Miami, Chicago and others–have already adopted 311 services, providing citizens with easy access to a single number for all government services.

These 311 contact centers often use the very same technology utilized by public safety to locate and route the caller to a 311 dispatcher closer to them.

The cool part is that all of the information available to public safety dispatchers is also available to the 311 call taker. In many cases, even more information could be made available, based on an established profile for a particular telephone number.

In New York City (home to one of the largest 311 contact centers in the country), calls are answered in 50 different languages and cover just about any municipal service you can think of.

Once a person calls 311, it’s a simple task to tag that person with a specific language indicator. The next time they call in, the contact center’s advanced technology can automatically route that person to a call taker who speaks their language.

Taking the idea one step further, you can imagine someone calling 311 to report a pothole, and then later, calling back to check on the status of their complaint. The next time they called in, they would be connected with an interactive voice response (IVR) system that could tell them the status of their initial report.

Not only does this provide more information and feedback to constituents with complaints, it frees up 311 call takers to answer other calls live.

In addition to providing standard voice communications, 311 centers can respond to email, SMS, instant messages, pictures, video and other multimedia content. They could also interact with citizens through an app that allows people to enter, report and track progress on complaints.

While this might seem like space-age technology to many in law enforcement, this very same technology is deployed around the world in commercial contact centers. While I am very cognizant not to draw a direct comparison between a 911 center and a customer service center, the call flow, information sharing and call handling criteria are absolutely identical.

From a resiliency perspective, commercial contact center technology is capable of handling a busy hour call completion (BHCC) rating of 300,000 to 400,000. In fact, several 911 centers that are regionalized and have 40 positions or more often make their PBX technology decisions based on the contact center functionality for automatic call distribution (ACD) queues.


Today, there is a valid concern–as expressed by Michigan State Police Lieut. Michael A. Shaw–that lines could be “tied up” with non-emergency calls, potentially preventing police from responding to people with real emergencies.

In the future, that will be less of a concern, as the ESInet will be IP-based, and therefore dynamically scale to compensate for sporadic bursts in traffic. In that environment, the number that you dial will connect you with either emergency or nonemergency services. For those who misdial, it will be a simple handoff from one agent to another–all in a common center, between agents with different skill sets.

The bottom line is that trunking will no longer be a gating factor limiting access from the public.

With this type of technology deployed throughout the government services offered by a large city, any type of X11 service would be easily deployable across a common architecture. Do you know what other X11 services are available around the country? Here’s a current list of X11 services and their common use:

NOTE: Not all numbers are available everywhere in the US.

111 – Non-emergency medical assistance
211 – Non-emergency human needs assistance
311 – Local government information
411 – Telephone information
511 – Traffic information
611 – Telephone repair
711 – Telephone Device for Deaf (TDD) Relay
811 – Call before you dig
911 – Police/Fire/Medical EMERGENCY

Want more technology, news and information from Avaya? Be sure to check out the Avaya Podcast Network landing page at http://avaya.com/APN. There, you will find additional podcasts from industry events, such as Avaya Evolutions and INTEROP, as well as other informative series by the APN staff.

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Thanks for stopping by and reading the Avaya Connected blog on E9-1-1. I value your opinions, so please feel free to comment below or, if you prefer, email me privately.

Public comments, suggestions, corrections and loose change is all graciously accepted 😉
Until next week… dial carefully.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter @Fletch911


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