Don’t Cut That 911 Cord! (Yet)

Before you cut the cord, you better understand what’s attached.

Technologists and legislators in Washington D.C. are currently debating a number of hot-button topics, as they face challenges around upgrading America’s 911 infrastructure. Those topics include the pending sunset of the public switched telephone network (which some industry experts say can happen as early as 2018), the transition to an Internet protocol-based communications backbone, and the entire telecommunications business model being disrupted, as users transition away from traditional legacy services and opt instead for wireless voice and data connectivity.

This past week, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communications Technology and the Internet held a hearing on “Preserving Public Safety and Network Reliability in the IP Transition”. Witnesses appearing at that hearing were:

Ms. Colette D. Honorable – Chairman of the Board and President
National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners
Testimony Transcript

Mr. Jonathan Banks -Senior Vice President, Law and Policy
USTelecom
Testimony Transcript

Ms. Jodie Griffin – Senior Staff Attorney
Public Knowledge
Testimony Transcript

Ms. Gigi Smith – President
APCO International
Testimony Transcript

Mr. Henning Schulzrinne – Chief Technology Officer
Federal Communications Commission
Testimony Transcript

Henning Schulzrinne

Schulzrinne summarized the “IP transition” as one of three simultaneous transitions. The application layer, where services are rapidly moving to VoIP from TDM, the network transport layer, where he described TDM circuits as a “content neutral conveyor of information” in the core access network, which was moving from copper telephony to diverse technologies such as coax, wireless, fiber, and satellite.

He spoke about how these diverse technologies will offer new opportunities for advancing consumer welfare and public safety by adding an additional modality and content, yet warned of the potential complexities that these new technologies brought, as well as the lack of some features we have previously relied upon.

Some areas of concern that Schulzrinne noted were combating TDoS attacks and caller ID spoofing that could be detrimental to PSAP operations. Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) sent to mobile telephones advising to “seek shelter now,” but unable to deliver detailed information. He noted some recent outages that have affected and exposed frailties in the existing emergency services infrastructure, where a large number of PSAPs were supported by a very small number of servers.

Another area, often forgotten, are citizens with hearing- or speech disabilities that cannot readily use the existing 911 network, due to the fact that is based on voice communications. Although the four major cellular operators have voluntarily agreed to make text-to-911 available, in reality, very few agencies are able to receive text messages.

Avaya has created the following map, based on current data provided by the FCC PSHSB as of May 30th, 2014. Areas in green indicate counties where Text-to-911 from at least a single carrier is available to citizens using some method. Not all carriers currently provide Text-to-911 coverage in all areas, and the policy stands that you should:

CALL IF YOU CAN – TEXT IF YOU CAN’T

Text-to-911 Coverage Map of America

Finally, he noted the alarming trend toward mobile 911 calls and the inability for the PSAP to determine a caller’s location, despite the public’s current perception. He noted that 70 percent of all emergency calls now originate on mobile phones, and 56 percent of those calls are placed from indoors where GPS and wireless triangulation methods are less effective.

This becomes a very troubling fact for enterprise emergency communications. All too often, I hear the response, “I’ll just use my cell phone to call 911 from my office. Why do I need to be able to dial in on the PBX?” While there are technologies that are available that would improve indoor cellular location accuracy, there is much work yet to be done in this area.

Gigi Smith APCO
APCO Logo

GiGi Smith, the current president of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) provided additional insight based on her 28 years in public safety, where she started off as a 9-1-1 calltaker and worked her way through the ranks to her current position as the Police Operations Manager for the Salt Lake Valley Emergency Communications Center.

Smith noted that audio quality on emergency calls remains the most important topic to tackle, as critical audio information about a particular incident can be passed along such as “subtle background sounds, like someone racking up a shotgun, [that] can make a significant difference to the first responder.” This is why bridging in other persons to an emergency call are considered NOT to be a good practice, as they can interfere with communications.

The importance of additional data that could be present with IP-related technologies, and the ability for public safety to gather and utilize that data, such as alarms, sensors, video, and social media, was also noted as a potential mechanism to improve on some existing deficiencies that existed in the current architecture.

Taking this information into the Public Safety ESInet is only part of the solution. Support for FirstNet and its ability to deliver broadband to the public safety first responder, as well as all of the “big data” that is collected, is critical to completing the picture.

Smith commended the Senate committee for including the word “reliability” in the title of the hearing, as it has specific importance within the public safety community. Reliable 911 communications are necessary when things are at their worst–such as when wide-scale damage exists–and typically little to no warning prior to the incident is given, not to mention the large surge in traffic on the public safety network that subsequently occurs.

In conclusion, a considerable amount of information was presented at this one-hour-and-46-minute hearing that is well worth the investment of time. You can listen to today’s leaders in the industry discuss the key tenants that are driving next-generation emergency services, the situational awareness that will be available due to the presence of big data, and best practices for connecting and interconnecting citizens who need help with the public safety professionals that can provide that help.

Watch the webcast here.

In order to reach public safety emergency services, you have to be able to dial public safety emergency services. And while we as adults are familiar with dialing ‘9’ for an outside line, the tragic story of Kari Hunt’s murder in December 2013 should remind us all that we teach our children to dial 9-1-1, and in most cases, a child has no idea what an ‘access code’ is or does. You can show your support for that change by going to Change.org/KarisLaw.