America’s 9-1-1 System: John Oliver Got it Right (Mostly)—9-1-1 Access still remains the most crucial step to emergency response
For those who may have missed HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” on this past Sunday night, there was a humorous but important segment featuring America’s 9-1-1 system. I had gotten a heads up on this earlier in the week, and was anxious, albeit fully expecting this to be the average story, poorly researched and full of inaccurate assumptions around 911.
Fortunately, I could not have been more wrong. I sat back, watching the segment go on for nearly 15 minutes—each second being more amazing than the last—sprinkled with just the right amount of humor to make the important points stand out. I have to commend Mr. Oliver, and his staff, who obviously did a great deal of homework on the topic. The level of detail, as well as the subtle references, proved that quite a bit of preparation went into this piece, and they had talked to the right people in the industry. While John formulated a ton of pertinent points, accurately describing the sad state of America’s overall 9-1-1 infrastructure, he focused on cellular location accuracy and challenges leading to how we got there. But in addition to this problem, a few other critical points were missed—starting with ‘access.’
For any current 911, or Next Generation 911 system, to function properly—access into the system is first required. Only then can any end-to-end functionality and benefit for citizens be expected.
Universal access to 911 means being able to reach emergency services from any device, at any time and from anywhere. It means that 911 works both with and without an access code in Multi-Line Telephone Systems (MLTS), as I have covered in Kari’s Law many times. Currently there are House and Senate Bills working their way through the legislative process, and in these, we make the point that access to 911 must be followed immediately by on-site notification that immediately establishes situational awareness—bringing the building aware of the fact that a particular station dialed 911, and most importantly, the location of where that particular device is in the building.
We are not asking for internal folks to answer those calls—they are likely not trained to do so—we want them to be aware the calls happened. Doors may need to be unlocked, elevators may need to be held, and life-saving assistance might be rendered while waiting for public safety to arrive. Such pre-arrival coordination can speed response considerably. Despite the fact that many building operators feel they should be answering their own 911 calls, this is generally not a good practice to follow. When you dial 911 or you dial another established emergency code in the building, the call needs to reach the proper public safety answer point (PSAP) and not be intercepted by someone who is not trained to respond properly.
Less than half of U.S. States have current legislation covering this, and only a small few have any penalty for non-compliance. This may radically change if the House of Representatives takes an important next step in ensuring access that will lead to increased public safety by voting on H.R. 4167, also known as “The Kari’s Law Act of 2015.” This Bill sat in committee for only a day before a unanimous vote and 24 Republican and Democratic sponsors brought this to the House floor for a full vote. As most of my readers already know, Kari’s Law was named for “Kari Dunn who was murdered in 2013 by her estranged husband in a Marshall motel room while her 9-year-old daughter tried unsuccessfully to dial 911…because the girl did not know that the motel phone system required dialing an extra 9 to reach an outside line.” After much work in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott enacted Kari’s Law as the first Bill he signed. A similar bill is expected to be signed by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam sometime in the next month.
Federally, Kari’s Law in the bi-partisan H.R. 4167 Bill, with a companion S.2553 in the U.S. Senate, will accomplish the following:
- Amend the Communications Act of 1934 to require phone vendors and individual buildings to ensure people can connect directly with emergency services without having to press ‘1’ or ‘9’ first.
- Require outgoing ‘911’ calls connect directly to emergency services without local interference.
- Ensure that on-site personnel are notified that a ‘911’ call was made.
Why does this matter? It matters because countless Americans will finally have protection, confidence and necessary peace of mind that when a 9-1-1 call is made, there will be a first responder who will have the necessary information to reach the victim without the many issues raised by you, Mr. Oliver. It will mean that America’s network of phones, an invention created by Alexander Graham Bell in March 1876, who’s first call was actually an emergency call, when he called out to Watson after spilling acid on himself, will finally serve the interests of all Americans nationwide.
So what can Americans do? Call your Congressman NOW at (202) 225-3121 to express your support for H.R. 4167. Support for this initiative has never been so important.