Homeland Security and Public Safety

APCO Releases E911 Information for App Developers

The increase of public safety apps for smartphones led to the creation of educational materials that will provide app developers an understanding of E911 system capabilities and limitations.

Due to the increase of smartphone apps entering the market involving public safety and emergency communications, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International felt there was a strong need to better inform current and potential app developers of enhanced 911 systems’ capabilities. According to an APCO press release, many new apps display a high degree of creativity and innovation, but they need to take into consideration the enhanced 911 (E911) technical architecture as well as the operations of public safety answering points.

APCO and the National Emergency Number Association partnered to draft educational materials that will provide smartphone application developers an understanding of E911 system capabilities and limitations.

E911 is currently used in a majority of U.S. 911 call centers and lacks the tech updates of its future replacement, next-generation 911. According to the document, Public Safety Considerations for Smartphone App Developers, the E911 emergency communications and data system was designed in the 1970s and has unique limitations as compared to the current application and Internet environment. Key limitations that app developers should be aware of include:

1.    People expect that their location will be automatically delivered to the call center any time they call or contact 911. Data that is resident within smartphone-type applications, such as the caller’s name, location or call-back number, cannot currently be delivered with a 911 call.

2.    An app that notifies the caller’s family or friends of an emergency situation should not be viewed as a solution for contacting 911.

3.    Only voice and a single eight or 10 digit reference code can be carried with an E911 call. This code is designed to carry the caller's telephone number or a reference number that assists in determining how to route a 911 call to the appropriate 911 center. Developers should note that the 911 center that a call is routed to may not be the 911 center physically closest to the caller.

Although next-generation 911 — which has the capabilities to support voice, text, video and additional data — is beginning to be implemented in the U.S., APCO’s paper says it will most likely take eight to 10 years for it to evolve across most of the country. There are many factors (e.g., funding and regulatory) that impact how and when the new 911 system will be available on a large scale.

“During this transitional period, while the original, legacy E911 system is still in use, it is imperative that new communications services or technologies that allow users to speak, text or otherwise communicate with others, be able to interoperate with the legacy E911 and the new NG911 systems in a reliable, seamless manner,” the paper reads.

Additional considerations for app developers are listed in the paper and cover topics like direct communications with 911, notifying friends and family, and third-party services.