Solving India’s 911 Problem: Real Solution, or Knee-Jerk Reaction?

This article originally appeared on Avaya’s NG911 blog.

Emergency services in India have evolved over the years. But instead of consolidating access numbers, the decision was made to implement different numbers for everything. At the 9-1-1 Goes to Washington event in March 2014, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai referred to this problem during his address to the public safety community:

“We in the United States often take our 911 system for granted. But my recent trip to India reminded me how fortunate we are. In India, there isn’t a single number that people can call for help. There’s one number to reach the police, another for the fire department, and yet another if you need an ambulance. There are even different numbers for senior citizens, women, and children to use. I learned that many Indian households have a long list of numbers stuck on their walls and refrigerator doors to remind them which number to call for which emergency. All of this leads to needless confusion and delayed response times.”

In an effort to solve the confusion, India’s Women & Child Development Minister, Maneka Gandhi, developed a proposal that would allow people to connect to emergency services by ‘pressing and holding the 9 button‘ on any cell phone. The idea was given the go-ahead in a recent meeting of representatives from the country’s service providers, as well as mobile phone manufacturers.

Apps were discussed, but dismissed, as they have not been effective elsewhere in the world. For an app to be useful, people need to install the app and keep it up to date. Unfortunately, most people don’t plan that far ahead.

Additionally, pressing ‘9’ on an older analog cell phone could effectively be implemented at the carrier level without excluding analog cellular phones, which remain prevalent across India.

While I have to commend the essential simplicity of this idea, it does raise a few concerns that may not have been completely vetted, and may actually have some unintended negative impact:

  • How long is a ‘long press’ exactly?
  • Can it be canceled?
  • What will multiple rapid presses do?
  • Pocket dialing is a huge problem. How many misdial events will this potentially generate, having a negative impact on public safety resources, which are already running paper thin?

Without a study being done on the misdial call load on PSAPs alone (something that can be tracked and measured) it appears this solution may be a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to a problem, and has the possibility of making the situation worse by impacting public safety.

Another point to consider is the potential confusion this may cause to citizens. Clearly, 911, 112, and 999 are well-known emergency access numbers globally. They all have been promoting the concept of  “anywhere, anytime, and on any device” for more than a decade.

While this addresses mobile phones, it is likely the ‘long press’ of 9 on telephone devices that are NOT cell phones could be difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce or replicate. This would then eliminate the universality of access to emergency services we currently enjoy today.

After two years of fighting a policy battle in the US, we are just beginning to win the “No 9 Needed” battle with MLTS PBX systems. This initiative, know best under the name ‘Kari’s Law,’  requires MLTS systems to recognize just the digits 911, 112 and 999 as emergency numbers; effectively eliminating the “9” normally needed to get an outside line. The popular tagline for Kari’s law is “No 9 Needed”, but now we need to modify this message to be “Except in India, where you just press 9”? Hank Hunt may have a comment or two on that.

The IETF states that the numbers for emergency services globally should be 911, and 112. In the UK, 999 has been locally ingrained, and although attempts and suggestions have been made over the years to change it, history will live on, and the best that we will see is support for 911 and 112 in the local PSTN, and 999 will continue to live on in perpetuity.

Clearly the problem will continue, but it is good that people are looking to solve the issues. I would highly recommend the Ministers of India talk to the experts at NENA EENA and APCO International before potentially life-changing decisions like this are made without completely vetting the technical and social impact of the decision.

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