A Call For Help

— March 05, 2008

Dial 9-1-1 in North America and you'll connect to one of 6,500 Public Safety Answer Points (PSAPs) in the US (and more in Canada). But you'll connect to an analog system little changed since it was introduced in 1969 for one homogenous landline network.

Today PSAPs receive some 2 million calls per year - the majority made from mobile phones. This has turned out to be a blessing and a curse. Mobiles are clogging a system incapable of prioritizing calls, so that 100 people may be on hold to report the same minor traffic accident while a mile away someone who is having a massive heart attack has to wait to get through.

As a constable for the Peel Regional Police in Ontario, Canada, Jeff Robertson was the one to show up when residents called for help. After building several companies selling emergency response technologies, he is now executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based 9-1-1 Industry Alliance (91A). The organization represents vendors working to implement a new vision for receiving and dispatching emergency calls for police, fire and medical attention. He spoke to Mobile Enterprise about the challenges of updating this legacy system.

Mobile Enterprise: At 39 years old, is 9-1-1 an outdated concept?

Jeff Robertson: From the public perception, as one of the most recognized numbers in North America, it works. However, the technology behind the number - and the legislation to fund the system - are both outdated.

ME: How do we get to where we need to be?

JR: We need a private, secure IP network capable of supporting new forms of communication, whether pre-paid phones, telematics (eg. OnStar), wireless, landlines, satellite phones, text messages, video messages, VoIP, chat, alarm systems or any other kind of new device. The biggest question is who and how to pay for this upgrade. We need legislation to fund this network build-out and to ensure all devices pay a fair surcharge.

ME: Does 9-1-1 need to be an intelligent two-way system that handles text and metadata as well as voice transmission?

JR: Yes, but we are a long way from this today. The most advanced [systems] tend to be able to combine voice notification, text-to-device notification and Internet, along with traditional forms of media [such as] TV and radio. Public safety is starting to use these systems, but corporations seem to have embraced the best notification systems as good business.

ME: And the ability to filter, analyze, prioritize and route calls?

JR: The technology is there, but call centers for businesses do this a lot better.


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