The Truth about 911: How Outdated Technology is Putting Your Life at Risk
When tragedy strikes, we’re told to dial 911. Unfortunately, tragedy does strike … and often—millions of people call 911 each year. But what happens when the technology meant to save us, fails us?
Four hundred times each minute, people across the country will dial 911 on sophisticated handheld devices and lose precious seconds trying to describe where they are and what they’re seeing over the phone, rather than sharing precise coordinates or a live video stream.
What these several hundred million callers don’t realize is that they’re dialing an antiquated emergency telephone network, a system that – even in its most advanced state today – struggles to deliver geographical location with a text message.
Looking around, you’d be hard-pressed to find lifesaving technology in use today that hasn’t been overhauled since the 1970s. 911 is one of the few exceptions. Fortunately, Next-Generation 911 will change that.
What is Next-Generation 911?
Next-Generation 911 (NG 911 for short) represents the capabilities, technology and processes needed to update the emergency networks we rely on today. 911 has a relatively short history in the United States — the first 911 call was completed in the small town of Haleyville, Alabama in 1968, and in the early 1970s, cities began adopting the number universally.
While the tools sitting on top of the 911 network have been updated throughout the years, the fundamental core technology — analog-based, 1970s phone switching — has not. That’s a problem, because 911 was designed to efficiently handle people calling in on landline phones, which are quickly disappearing. Given next-generation capabilities, 911 will be able to handle the additional information smartphones contain, as well as IP telephones, text messaging, video and online chat.
How does NG 911 improve what we have today?
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, telephone networks were designed to carry voice calls from one location to another. Services were regionalized, and the local phone company managed the entire infrastructure from end to end. When the 911 network was designed, it was done so under those constraints.
Popular communication channels commonly used today simply will not work over the legacy 911 environment. Take, for example, text-to-911, a relatively simple technology that allows citizens to send text messages to the 911 center, rather than calling on a phone.
Text-to-911 has taken more than a decade to roll out in the U.S., and is available in just 5 percent of the 6,800 emergency 911 centers in use today, according to the Federal Communications Commission. In those roughly 340 emergency 911 centers, text-to-911 is still an add-on feature that largely lacks the ability to deliver location with the text message.
To be clear, we’re not talking about the accuracy of that location data—no location data is delivered to the 911 center with a text message today to many centers, simply because the method used to deliver that data was not initially deployed. One exception is the state of Colorado, which has rolled out IP delivery of text-to-911 calls over an IP network, where they can–at a minimum–deliver the centroid (mathematical center) of the cell sector. Certainly far from perfect, but it’s a start.
NG 911 will give people the ability to send photos, video, GPS coordinates and other additional data (such as blood pressure or glucose data from a wearable device) to the 911 center.
How do we upgrade 911?
In many ways, the technology that powers 911 is very similar to the technology that powers the commercial customer service call center in use at airlines and financial institutions. Customers (citizens) contact the business (police and fire) using a number of different communication channels. The business (police or fire) takes action (responds to the emergency) and resolves the issue (saves a life). Since the 1970s, businesses have advanced, and steadily upgraded the technology powering these customer service centers, and there’s now a well-worn migration path the 6,800 emergency call centers can follow.
Simply put, this is a logical technology decision that’s decidedly possible today, with considerable lifesaving consequences tomorrow.
How will NG 911 affect me?
The answer to this question is limited only by your imagination.
Imagine if you could dial 911 from your smartphone and send police and fire a range of digital information — your exact GPS coordinates, live video, your phone’s battery level and default language, possibly even biometric data from your wearable devices.
With a next-generation 911 infrastructure, first responders could send details about your health and condition to the hospital while en route. Emergency room doctors could even establish a live video link with the ambulance, to get a sense of what to expect when you arrive.
In the future, wearable devices could automatically alert your family or your doctor if your vital signs dip into dangerous territory, and contact 911 directly if your heart stops beating or if you go unconscious.
If you have a family member with dementia, you could program a wearable device to notify you if they wander outside a pre-set geographic area. You might decide to send that data to emergency responders, who would be able to find that person and bring them home.
Internet-connected mobile devices and wearables are here, and they’re ready to save lives, but the legacy 911 centers in our communities are ill-prepared to handle them.
It’s time to future-proof 911. Rather than adding more layers of complexity to the top, it’s time to upgrade the technology’s foundation. It’s time for Next-Generation 911.
Correction: In an earlier version of this article, we stated that text-to-911 does not attach exact location coordinates in the message. Select implementations of text-to-911 are capable of transmitting rudimentary location coordinates.