9-1-1 Apps: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Fletch: We’re sitting down with Todd Piett, who is the Chief Product Officer at Rave Mobile Safety, and he also sits on the Board of Directors of the Next-Gen 9-1-1 Institute. Welcome to the podcast, Todd.

Todd Piett
RaveMobile

Todd: Thanks, Fletch. It’s great to be here.

Fletch: The emergence of the app, Next Generation 9-1-1, there’s a lot happening in public safety for 2014.

Todd: Yeah. The emergence of the app is a really interesting topic. You see it everywhere in our day-to-day life and consumers; we’re seeing tons and tons of apps coming out there. The app stores, whether they be Android or iTunes, are filled with things that do everything from help you count to three to buy groceries. Now we’re seeing that same kind of promulgation of apps come out around public safety.

Fletch: Yeah. We’ve got the whole new initiative with text to 9-1-1, even though that’s not as widespread as some of the media reports want to make it. There’s a really small percentage, but it’s coming; Next Generation 9-1-1 is coming. It’s all about the additional data and delivering that additional data to PSAPs.

Todd: Yeah. As you well know, Next Gen is a network that enables a lot of really cool things, and part of it’s the communications around texting or in the future of video, instant messaging, email. The standard defines just about any type of communication you could imagine.

Then there’s the data that I like to think of as the fuel that drives these rules engines that are in this network that allow us to do really cool things, whether that be identifying the right resources to dispatch, whether that be finding more information about the individual that’s texting in.

It’s really difficult to pull that data out of somebody over 160 characters. It takes awhile, but if it pops up and gives their medical history and things like that, it can really enable a faster response. The data is kind of a key contributor to allowing all of these amazing use cases that we’re envisioning with Next Gen to really happen.

911 Apps

Fletch: It’s the additional data, getting that additional data from the originator of the event to the call-taker at the 9-1-1 center. That’s the challenge, just getting that data. The existing network won’t allow the intelligent transfer of data.

You’ve got a limited analog-based voice-only circuit there. Delivering it over the top is something that we’ve been talking about, correlating that with data aggregation. Do you see that going away with Next Gen 9-1-1 or do you see it actually expanding?

Todd: I really don’t see it going away. What you’re talking about, at least in our approach for going over the top or using the existing Internet to take what we see coming into a PSAP and then reaching out to the Internet and going, okay, what can you provide me, through a very secure means, but what can you provide me about this caller or this location based on what I’ve seen in the ANI ALI. That’s really how we define over the top. It’s using other available networks to append information onto that call. That’s kind of the baseline.

Obviously, from a technology standpoint in Next Gen, the networks allow a lot more of that. They’re more designed to allow rich data to come into the PSAP, but there’s still that problem of where is this data coming from. We feel the need for an aggregator and somebody to manage what’s a legitimate source, what’s the format that this needs to come in.

All of the things that need to be done to data to make it trustworthy and usable are still necessary in the Next Gen world. As we really look at all of the different sources that are envisioned, there aren’t a lot of really good standards out there.

Frankly, 9-1-1 is not going to drive the healthcare industry to do a standard that it hasn’t done in 40 years. There is a need to aggregate this data, synthesize it down into a way that’s consumable and makes sense for public safety. That’s a key role we see in the Next Gen of the future.

Fletch: With the penetration of smart devices, there’s a smartphone on everybody’s hip out there right now. The thing is, the app is really common. There’s an app for everything. We’re seeing a big development effort in a lot of apps around 9-1-1. There’s, I think, some question on the usefulness or the value of those apps. Some of them may actually be creating more of a problem, right?

Todd: It’s going back to the analogy that I said before where you’ve got apps that will help you count to three. Just because the technology enables something to be possible doesn’t mean it really makes sense or helps out.

There are some really cool things being done out there with apps. I was looking at a company the other day that does some really cool sharing of video and things like that between the PSAP and responders. There’s a lot of very, very helpful tools out there, but there’s also some that, frankly, not only aren’t helpful but are really detrimental to the process.

We see apps out there all the time that are- Somebody calls 911, they press a button to call 911, it is broadcasting to all their friends in the area that they’re in trouble. If you start to walk through the steps around what makes sense in that response, that’s pretty scary that now you’ve got a bunch of people that are either self-dispatching and trying to respond on their own or calling their local 9-1-1 center that could be miles or states away, driving traffic there to the PSAP that really can’t do anything about the incident.

Then worst case, if the PSAP really takes some steps to try and route the call back to the local area, you’ve got from a single incident a whole bunch of calls coming in that actually can’t contribute to the response.

There’s a number of apps, not just like that one, but other ones out there that are doing things around self-dispatching, off-duty responders, things like that that are- I think we really need to think through the use case and the long-term impacts. It’s not just about a technology that can do something cool; it’s about whether that thing that it’s doing actually helps or hurts the process. We’ve got to think hard about that.

Fletch: NENA, the National Emergency Number Association [www.nena.org], APCO, the Association for Public-Safety Communications Officials [apcointl.org], they have a joint document that’s out there, the dos and don’ts for smartphone app developers, and there are some specific guidelines in there that a lot of the bad apps just basically don’t follow.

APCO Logo
NENA Logo

Todd: It’s kind of disheartening. I think NENA and APCO did a really good job at walking the fine line between dictating and saying something’s not possible and then in that manner stifling innovation, and on the flip side pretty strongly stating this doesn’t make sense and we recommend you stay away from it.

The example that stands out most to me is as a nation, we’ve decided and we’ve built a lot of time, infrastructure, and process around 9-1-1 being the way you contact emergency response services, and the thing, 9-1-1 is not just calling, it’s texting, it’s all of the things that are enabled in the future by Next Gen 9-1-1. Our response process is designed around that communication. We’ve got call-takers; we’ve got redundancy; we’ve got operational procedures that make sure that that’s as efficient as possible.

Now, all of a sudden, some apps that- That’s the clear thing in the NENA and APCO standard is, hey, that is the way we contact people for emergencies, but you get apps out there that are going around that. I’m not sure whether a lot of the app community really just doesn’t know about these standards. Not everybody is involved in public safety when they build an app. Then some of them just disregard it. It’s a little disheartening that NENA and APCO did such a good job to put this together, and in a lot of ways, it’s disregarded.

Fletch: You also see people with some seemingly impressive industry credentials that are saying things are a good idea when, in fact, a lot of public safety would disagree with that. I think the uninformed person becomes confused; whom do I listen to?

Todd: We’ve been doing a lot of work lately around schools and panic button applications and things, and that’s a great example of- A superintendent or principal at a elementary school has a lot of things on their plate, and safety is one aspect, a very important one, but one tiny aspect. They’re not safety experts. If somebody comes to them and says, hey, here’s a solution, they’re probably going to take that vendor at their word and look at that solution.

One of the things that we’ve seen is that need to bring holistically all of the people involved in the response process. It’s 911, it’s the schools, it’s school resource officers, it’s all of the law enforcement, fire, and EMS folks, bringing them together, work through how is this going to help you or hurt you, and let’s really think through the solution. That part is missing. Lots of people, they’ll buy something because it sounds great without thinking through all of the ramifications.

Fletch: We see that even in the enterprise space, too. One of the things that some people present out there is the bridging of the 911 call with local onsite people so they can “hear what’s going on,” not thinking about that they have the potential of injecting additional audio and messing with the pristine audio that the call-taker is listening for.

They’re listening for background noises. Now you’ve got somebody else on the line contributing to that. The call-taker doesn’t understand that; they don’t know that. They could hear something from the person that’s listening that is assuming that it’s coming from the person who is calling. Just things that sound like they’re a good idea, but really when you look at the use case, it really is not a good idea. Let public safety do their job. That’s what they’re trained to do.

Todd: I agree. Funny you mention that. I just saw an app the other day that does that same thing as well. From the technology standpoint it was very cool, but as soon as you dug into the fact you can’t tell who is trying to tell you something on the other end of the line and, oh, by the way, the second person that got bridged in really doesn’t know anything about what’s going on other than being nervous that their family member is in trouble. It gets really to the point of impeding an effective response.

Fletch: Years ago, somebody actually played me a recording. I wish I had this and saved it. It was a hotel where someone in a room had started a fire accidentally and dialed 911. The front desk was bridged in with that 911 call and got on the phone. All you could hear was the fire alarm located at the front desk, waa-waa-waa, blaring away and nobody could hear anything. I’m thinking, my god, what a great example of why you don’t want to bridge other stations in on an emergency call.

Todd: There’s stories you hear now, and you chuckle at them, but when you think back about the ramifications and risks that happen and life and limb are involved, it’s not always humorous.

Fletch: No, absolutely. What do you think is the way forward? How do we fix all of this?

Todd: One of the things that I think we have to do a better job is just educating the public-safety community. Partly it’s about apps, but partly it’s more broadly about how do you get out to the people that are interacting with you and really get them to understand the implications.

Again, I’ll go back to my most recent experience, and it’s a little bit disheartening to me how many times I’ve gone and had meetings with school superintendents, school resource, police chief and the 9-1-1 center, and it’s the first time they’ve all been sitting together discussing that topic.

Often, 9-1-1 is not involved or it might be one-on-one meetings, but that kind of simple meeting and education for something that we all recognize is a risk, whether it be an active shooter situation, gas leaks, fires at schools, whatever it might be, that important goal of protecting our children. Those are things that we can just start having an honest dialogue about, hey, before we all spend money, let’s think through what we want to do to help this process.

The second part is I think NENA and APCO have- A lot of times they don’t work all that well together, but they’ve done a great job on putting together this listing of app recommendations. I know that there’s been some efforts to really get the app-development community more aware of those, which is great, but at the same time, we continue to see, whether it be hackathons or things that don’t even bring those developmental guidelines up front at the beginning of the process and say, if you think about what you’re building, here’s the kind of public-safety context. A lot of it is educational. That’s something that we all have to take some responsibility for.

Fletch: Yeah. It was amazing. I interviewed Bill Schrier when I was out in California for the APCO event. Bill has done tremendous amounts of work in the state of Washington, in the city of Seattle, opening up that dataset for a hackathon. It was just amazing what the community came up with. Unfortunately, not every major city has a Bill Schrier out there. I think we need more of those types of people in the CIO-type role.

Related article: Government Thought Leadership with Bill Schrier

Todd: I can’t say enough good about Bill. He’s an amazing guy. I agree that that kind of approach and really bringing a knowledge base to bear. It’s not just about opening up data. What Bill’s done in terms of giving some guidance and helping to set a framework for making sure that the apps and the things that are developed actually make sense is really helpful.

Fletch: Todd thanks very much for sitting down with us. You’re a good colleague. I’ve enjoyed talking with you about a lot of stuff over the years, and you guys at Rave are really doing some innovative stuff with the whole Smart911 concept. I see you guys as the consummate data aggregator that’s out there and really bringing a lot of value to all this.

The app side, definitely another alternative to bring more data in, but it’s got to be done with caution; it’s got to be done with standards; it’s got to be done with the use cases that are vetted by public-safety people and the app people, not just developed in a vacuum by someone with some credentials.

Todd: I appreciate your endorsement, and we look forward to doing some work together soon.

Fletch: Absolutely. We’ll see you down at NENA in Nashville, I assume?

Todd: We’ll be there. It’s a Smart911-supported community as well, so we hope you guys can make the tours to the PSAP and see our stuff in action.


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