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9-1-1 Magazine: Managing Emergency Communications

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Bringing 9-1-1 into the 21st Century: Tools, Technology, & Training

Author: John Linstrom

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2015-09-28
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There are a lot of emergencies that can happen within any community. Someone could have a bad fall, there could be a spill of hazardous materials at a local business, or there could be a fire threatening neighborhoods. Then there are natural disasters like earthquakes, floods or severe weather. And unfortunately, community violence is another emergency we have to consider more seriously these days.

That’s a lot to think about, but remember that there is one critical tool we all rely on for any of those situations, and it’s something we often take for granted: the ability to call 9-1-1.

It’s easy to think that we’ve always had the ability to call a simple three-digit number to immediately receive police, fire or emergency medical help. But those who have been around a little longer remember that it was once a great, novel idea.


The Early Generations of 9-1-1

It was in the 1960s that the idea for a single, nationwide emergency telephone number was first popularized. And it got a lot of attention, with the creation of a special commission by the president of the United States. The result was the creation of a network of answering points across the nation that were responsible for dispatching emergency responders. This was a great tool for businesses and individuals and has undoubtedly saved many lives over the course of its existence.

9-1-1 got another boost in the 1970s which solved one of the main problems of the system. It wasn’t always possible for callers to give operators their specific location to aid with a quicker response. The government established a national database correlating phone numbers to specific addresses. This was a revolutionary change brought about by serious commitments on the part of communities across the country, and it greatly expanded the impact of the 9-1-1 system. (continues below)

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Shortcomings of the Legacy System

To see how much the world of communication has changed since the 1960s, just watch an old sitcom or film from that era. From phone booths to tabletop sets, it’s easy to see that the ability of people to exchange information was very much tethered. That has obviously changed over the last two decades, impacting our daily lives as much as any other advancement in society. Now we can send or receive virtually any kind of information – voice calls, text messages, photos, videos and more – from virtually any place in the world.

Unfortunately, freeing our personal information exchange in this way has proven to be a hindrance to effective emergency response. Mobile phone numbers aren’t tied to a physical location in a database. And the person could be anywhere when making the call. Making matters even more complex, innovative technologies such as Voice over IP mean that even landline telephone numbers can appear to show a call coming from one location when in fact it could coming from somewhere hundreds of miles away.

The human element of emergency response also plays a role in the situation. Along with a reconsideration of technology changes, information-sharing traditions in many communities threaten effective emergency response. In some cases, different agencies such as police and fire departments hesitate to share information with one another. Combined with proprietary communication systems between communities, this makes collaboration in an emergency particularly challenging.

Taking 9-1-1 into the Future

Given all these challenges, it is rapidly becoming clear that the current 9-1-1 system can’t continue as it has in the past. As the decision-makers in emergency communications experience the progress of technology on a personal level, we can expect to see the next generation of 9-1-1 adopt the best elements of consumer technology. Here are a few key differences to anticipate as these systems are developed.

  • It will be centered on Web-based technologies. This makes it simpler to introduce new features and keep hardware costs lower.
  • It will be a hub of more than voice information, incorporating voice, text and GPS information into one display for operators, letting them easily locate the caller.
  • Callers will also be able to share context-specific information including photos and videos that will help dispatchers and responders to make better decisions regarding appropriate response.
  • Open architecture will aid the implementation process by supporting solutions from multiple vendors, while meeting security requirements.

Of particular interest to 9-1-1 operators is the ability to receive and send text messages to help individuals in distress. More and more people are finding that they prefer texting to other forms of communication because of its convenience. Not only that, but in some situations where talking could be dangerous, or there is a medical reason for inability to speak, texting can be a life-saver. Few 9-1-1 systems, however, are currently capable of using texts to communicate with people during an emergency.

There are additional features desirable in the next generation of 9-1-1. For example, operators could use geolocation technology to find nearby individuals qualified to administer first aid, or receive information directly from IP-enabled devices such as medical implants. The ability to automatically alert multiple agencies of an emergency would also be useful, such as alerting a hospital of incoming wounded at the same time emergency medical responders are dispatched to a large-scale emergency.  (continues below)



Making Next-Generation 9-1-1 a Reality

Unfortunately for most communities, the road to next-gen 9-1-1 is still long. Few states have begun the transition, and there are always concerns such as budget challenges. Because infrastructure projects are behind the scenes more than higher-visibility initiatives, governments often feel more comfortable putting them on the back burner. They are also reluctant to replace current systems that are working, albeit in a more limited capacity than proposed replacements.

For those communities considering upgrading their 9-1-1 system, it begins with making a plan. To do that, they need a set of objective standards to adhere to. By visiting they can see a variety of suggested guidelines established by the National Emergency Number Association that help with such areas as connectivity and interoperability.

Training first responders is another key to realizing the next generation of 9-1-1. This requires helping employees of different agencies to see themselves as part of a greater whole rather than as a member of an organization competing with other emergency responders. By helping them to see the advantages of having more information with which to make decisions, they will be more willing to use the new tools that are put in place.  (continues below)

Where funding is a significant concern, current revenue streams should be evaluated, particularly 9-1-1 surcharges. Any kind of a tax increase is always likely to be met with resistance, but most states charge less than a dollar per month. A small increase of the surcharge could significantly impact the service they provide to citizens, and the increased lifesaving ability may be enough to gain public support. Educating the public on new or proposed 9-1-1 capabilities improves their trust in local governments.

Since 9-1-1, the federal government has placed an increased emphasis on interoperable communication. The latest generation of networked crisis communication systems delivers reliable, secure communications made possible through partnerships with cutting-edge technology providers. The resulting systems provide communication between a wide variety of devices from smartphones to IP-enabled radios – anything that can connect to a network. They also provide a high degree of data protection, which is a new addition to the traditional emphasis on securing physical sites of 9-1-1 dispatchers.

We are living in a time of unprecedented opportunity for communities when it comes to protecting their citizens. The legacy 9-1-1 system has served our nation well, but it’s time to look to the future and use the foundation laid by technological innovation and bring emergency response capabilities into the 21st century. When local governments partner with citizens, emergency services personnel and technology providers, they can make the future a safer place for all of us.


John Linstrom is Community Manager, Public Safety, at AtHoc, a division of Blackberry.  He has spent the past 30 years in military, municipal, special district, state and federal government agencies as an emergency manager, emergency responder and team commander.  John is currently the federal Team Commander for the 85-person National Disaster Medical System mass fatalities response team (DMORT) serving the Western U.S. and Pacific states and territories. John frequently serves as a Planning and Operations Specialist in the HHS Secretary’s Operations Center on large, novel or complex incidents. 

John holds Board Certification in Fire Protection, Homeland Security and Emergency Management.  He was named a Fellow of the Institution of Fire Engineers in 2014.  He graduated with an M.A. degree in Emergency & Disaster Management in 2015. 

For more information onAtHoc, a pioneer and recognized leader in networked crisis communication and leading provider to the U.S. Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, see

Photo: Jefferson County (CO) 9-1-1 Communications. 9-1-1 Magazine file photo, by R D Larson.


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