Homeland Security and Public Safety

The Past, Present and Future of 911 Systems

From his Enhanced 911 Office in Washington state, Bob Oenning breaks down the last 20 years of 911 systems and looks ahead.

Bob Oenning is the administrator of the Washington State Enhanced 911 Office, a position he has held since the program’s inception in 1993. The E911 Office’s ongoing programs continue to strengthen and define the quality of service to include improving the accuracy of location-capable 911 services to wireless customers and system upgrades to accommodate new technologies and private telephone systems. These upgrades include implementation of next-generation 911 using advanced Internet protocols for 911 call delivery, data management and potentially the future integration of social media.

Question: What changes in 911 center technology have you seen in the last 20 years?
Answer: Twenty years ago we were working to solve the problem of how to route 911 calls in a complex geopolitical environment. The result was enhanced 911 that used the caller’s address as a key to route the call to the correct public safety answering point (PSAP) and as an additional lifesaving feature displayed the address with the call. Getting accurate routing on close to 100 percent of the calls with the front door address was an achieved goal. About the time the voters of Washington state agreed that Enhanced 911 should be statewide, with a tax package to make it happen, wireless cellular service hit the streets. It took years of battling with the FCC to get requirements in place that the wireless carriers would route the calls to the correct PSAP and supply the caller’s location.

In the same time frame we needed to come up with ways to integrate private phone systems and accommodate huge changes in the technology and policies of the telecommunications industry as it was to a large degree deregulated with never previously considered ideas like number portability being implemented. Setup time for a 911 call was about 15 seconds from the last number dialed to a ring at the PSAP. We redesigned the network to reduce that to about six seconds and added dual-route diversity for virtually all calls with no down time. The evolving of the communications industry saw a huge growth in Internet capabilities and when companies started selling voice over Internet protocol services this time the FCC was quick to act to require effective 911 service. We had about nine months to do what had taken 10 years for wireless.

Outside of the technology issues and maybe the biggest change in the last 20 years is how 911 has become an absolute expected service. In the minds of the public, it is anticipated, and in the minds of those who are dispatched to assist, it has become the glue that holds the system together. 911 has become a public safety discipline unto itself, a full partner with police, fire and medical. Twenty years ago the technologies of today’s PSAPs from the 911 systems, to computer-aided dispatch (CAD), to multiband trunked radio systems with radio over Internet protocol were science fiction, and today we have professionals in the PSAPs who use, and manage, them 24 hours a day.

It appears that in the future technology will be driving all PSAP functions. What do you see both short term and long term for technological impacts to 911 centers?

The tools that you see in the hands of the public are the first clue to the future. I have an iPod that does more in the palm of my hand easier and faster than the 5-year-old computer on my desk. The iPod accepts voice commands and will take dictation, plus it is not a bad phone. 911 is moving to accommodating the deaf and hard of hearing by moving from TTYs to mobile text devices. Text-to-speech and speech-to-text will be common along with not having to move a mouse when a voice command will do. Graphic interfaces with tools like drag and drop, voice command and video from the caller to the PSAP are short term. Long term we'll see the integration of all kinds of data from associated sources ranging from the medical community to insurance companies to the response process, with the PSAP being the integration point all aimed at improving the capability to provide the best possible outcome for the caller.

A great number of small 911 centers receive just a few calls each day/week. What keeps these centers from consolidating with other larger 911 centers?

Pride in ownership, community and some insecurity about having someone else handle what is perceived as a very important safety function. The most frequent answer is politics, but I think that skims the emotional ties for many of the centers. We all have our comfort levels when it comes to having someone else do things for us. When I hear comments from small centers like, "The big PSAP just wouldn’t know the territory." I don’t think they are referring to the layout of the roads. It goes far deeper.

What three to five things would you look for to evaluate the quality of a 911 program or center?

Training and personnel is first. The people who take the calls must be hired using objective tools that permit them to work in the environment, and they must be trained with an ongoing program for growth in capabilities and maintain necessary certifications such as Emergency Medical System prearrival.

Management backing is second. The backing needs to be supportive in budget and recognition, but also needs to understand the role played and how critical it is to the individual calling. Every elected and appointed official in the hierarchy above the PSAP should spend a Saturday night plugged in with call takers. Management also needs to understand how the PSAP role impacts other agencies and activities with an emphasis on how effective protocols at the PSAP can make a major incident manageable for many responsible parties outside of the normal ones dispatched. That understanding can help build responsive community action plans centered on rapid activations by the PSAP.

Third is the best tools. From the 911 system being capable and responsive to technology changes, to CAD systems that are comprehensive and easy to work with, to chairs that are comfortable, to radio systems that permit understanding what was said. All the tools must work without failure. They don’t need to be gold plated, just the best fit for the system and its users.

Sense of mission is the glue. The PSAP and all those associated with it must have a clear sense of their mission as a public service where failure is not an option.

Many if not all states have a taxing mechanism to support the function of their 911 systems. Some have raided these funds as the recession wrecked havoc with state budgets. What is the best strategy to protect these dedicated funds from being redirected to other uses?

Clearly articulate what the money is going to do, and spend it whenever possible on making 911 meet the expectations of the public. Work with the 911 community to establish support programs that get available funds into improving service rather than building a fund surplus for which there is no spending plan. Spending the money could mean entering into long-term contracts for equipment upgrades, system upgrades or other long-term commitments. If it isn’t being spent or is not clearly obligated, money in government is not needed and is therefore available for other uses.