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50 Years of 9-1-1: Technology Fuels Ongoing Evolution of 9-1-1

Author: Tony Parrott, VP of Sales, Solacom

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2018-02-14
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Fifty years have passed since the first 9-1-1 call was placed in the United States in Haleyville, Alabama. Like all calls in Haleyville at the time, that 9-1-1 call from City Hall passed through the mechanical switching gear at AT&T’s local central office on its way to the city’s police station. Since then, the mechanical switches across the country have given way to digital switches — and in some areas even IP soft switches — and many technology changes have occurred that have made 9-1-1 more efficient for callers and for the public safety answering points (PSAPs) that receive the calls. As the industry moves into the next decade, technology will continue to improve the way in which PSAPs handle 9-1-1 calls from citizens and provide access to police, fire, and other emergency response teams.


Location identification and computers changed call handling

The National Emergency Number Association notes that eight years after that first call in Haleyville 17 percent of the population in the U.S. was served by 9-1-1 service. By the end of the 20th century, approximately 93 percent of the population was served by some type of 9-1-1 service.

As with all industries, 9-1-1 call handling and management has been affected by the pace of technological change. For many years, the mechanical switching systems could only route calls to PSAPs with voice. Call takers would answer calls by asking for the nature of the emergency and asking callers to provide their location. But by the early 1980s, sophisticated features on switching and routing equipment allowed telephone companies to deliver critical location information for the landline call that included the caller’s address and phone number.

This Automatic Location Identification (ALI) feature significantly improved call processing times and the ability to accurately determine the closest emergency service to dispatch to the caller’s location. More importantly, if the caller was silent or a child who could not accurately relay location information, the call taker would have the preliminary ALI information to work with.

For many years, PSAPs captured ALI information on dumb terminals that featured small, green display screens dedicated to this function. But the introduction of personal computers based on the Microsoft™ MS-DOS® operating system in the mid-1980s changed 9-1-1 call handling from a mechanical process built around telephones and dumb terminals to a computerized process built around the personal computer (PC). Later, when PCs switched to the Microsoft Windows® environment, the speed and efficiency of the call handling and management process was significantly increased yet again.

Support for wireless and text extended service

Two of the biggest changes for 9-1-1 evolved as a direct result of the changes in the way people communicate. Society’s reliance on landline phones eventually gave way to cellular phones and the smartphones that are now in almost everyone’s pocket. The ubiquity of wireless phones led to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Enhanced 9-1-1 rules that are intended to improve the effectiveness and reliability of wireless 9-1-1 services.

Over the next few years, the FCC expects that mobile network operators will be able to send PSAPs more precise location information for all wireless 9-1-1 calls. It is widely believed that this will help solve one of the biggest industry challenges, which is to get an accurate location of a caller early enough in the process to route the call to the right response team based on that location.

Today, a large percentage of wireless calls are routed based on a cell tower or cell tower sector location, rather than a caller’s true location on the ground. In addition, current location technology does not extract an accurate location fast enough to route a call without further delaying call answering by a PSAP. The technology that will allow these calls to be routed properly will be based on a smartphone’s location, which is already part of the smartphone intelligence used in multiple applications, such as GPS mapping. Leveraging this intelligence will be a big step forward to accurate call routing based on geolocation.

Smartphones have also had an impact on the types of calls PSAPs must handle. Whereas in the past all calls, except those on TDD/TTY machines used by the hearing impaired, were received as voice calls, now PSAPs must also be able to handle text-based calls from smartphones.

Recent statistics show that the number of monthly texts sent increased more than 7,700 percent between 2006 and 2016, and 22 billion texts are sent every day, not including app-to-app messaging.* Smartphone texting is so pervasive and easy to use that it has virtually replaced TDD/TTY communications for the hearing and speech impaired.

The ability to handle text conversations is also critical in situations where people are threatened, but cannot safely talk on the phone. Situations involving domestic abuse, home invasions, and kidnappings are another key reason the FCC is pushing for mandatory text-to-911 support. In these cases, the ability to communicate silently with authorities can mean the difference between life and death.

Most importantly, texting is the preferred form of communications for younger generations and has also been embraced by older generations. Younger generations have grown up texting rather than talking on the phone. Older generations have found that it is an efficient way to communicate with friends, family, and business associates. As texting becomes increasingly ubiquitous, more and more people will assume that text-to-911 is a viable option for 9-1-1 and will try texting before dialing a 9-1-1 call.


Emerging trends will improve 9-1-1 efficiency

Looking ahead, there are a few trends that will shape 9-1-1 call handling over the next five to 10 years.

As it was in the past, location accuracy will continue to be one of the keys to a more effective response to 9-1-1 calls. Given the increasing shift to wireless, it will no longer be enough to have the address, latitude, and longitude of a caller, PSAPs will also need the ability to determine where the caller is in a building. This is especially true for calls from large complexes, such as shopping malls and high-rise buildings. In many cases, improving location accuracy will require PSAPs to merge information from wireless service providers with information from private databases that automatically register a smartphone location when it is used to call or text 9-1-1. This will improve location accuracy from hundreds of meters down to approximately five meters.

PSAPs will also need the ability to accurately locate people who call from Voice over IP (VoIP) phones within an office. That means their systems must be able to receive location information from the IP-PBXs in those offices and accurately display that information on call taker screens.

Along with location, enhanced content will play a key role in more efficient call handling.

Photo and video information may be useful to call takers and first responders because it may help them understand the scope and severity of incidents before response teams get to the scene. This multimedia information can also help them identify persons of interest when crimes are committed. Imagine a text message that includes a cellphone video of suspects running from the scene of a crime, or a dash cam video of a hit-and-run just seconds after it happens, or a photo of an altercation that’s underway at a major event.

With the high popularity of using smartphones to instantly share information, people will naturally include digital content, such as photos and videos, in their text messages to PSAPs. And they won’t stop to consider that the emergency call handling system might not support digital content.

Meanwhile, the virtualization of networking technology — the shift to more cloud-based networking — will allow PSAPs to virtualize the call taking environment. Virtualization will allow a single virtual system to be shared by a number of neighboring regional or statewide PSAPs. It will also ensure 9-1-1 service is always available during any situation in which access to the physical PSAP office is not possible, such as a natural disaster. Call takers will be able to connect to their 9-1-1 system from almost anywhere and continue to answer calls the same way they would if they were sitting in their own PSAP.

Eventually, the industry will work towards full interoperability. New standards are being developed that will allow a network of systems and subsystems in multiple PSAPs to share critical call information with each other and with all emergency response teams, without worrying about network protocols and interfaces.


Change is the only constant

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that the first 9-1-1 call happened 50 years ago. Technology has changed the 9-1-1 call handling process since then, and the next five to 10 years will prove to be an interesting time for all PSAPs. Today’s 9-1-1 call handling and management solutions will evolve by adapting emerging networking and computing technologies. The changes will be gradual as standards are developed, proposed, and ratified. But the ultimate result will be more efficient and effective 9-1-1 call handling.

And although the evolution of technology over the past 50 years has been critical to improving emergency response throughout North America, the human element has been just as important. Without the men and women who use the technology — the call takers, telecommunicators, dispatchers, whatever name they go by — the good work of 9-1-1 emergency response service would not get done. The people who take those calls, not knowing what emergency, fear, or sorrow will greet them when they answer the call, are the real heroes of 9-1-1, not the technology that enables it.

Stay tuned for 9-1-1 Magazine’s continuing perspectives on 
50 Years of 9-1-1 all this week. 

* 73 Texting Statistics That Answer All Your Questions,” Text Request, May 2016.

Photo: PSAP Call Handling System Today. Photo via Solacom.

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