9-1-1’s Fatal Flaw?

Next-Generation 9-1-1, the initiative aimed at updating the 9-1-1 system across the United States, is forcing state and local governments to abandon their traditional emergency phone networks in exchange for Internet Protocol networks, which can send digital voice, photo and video information over the internet. According to WJLA, a speedy transition is critical, in part because 70 percent of 9-1-1 calls are now made with wireless phones, many of which the 9-1-1 operator will never be able to locate, making the 9-1-1 dispatchers often as helpless as the victims they’re trying to reach.

From WJLA,

Sherrie White-Laney oversees communications and operations at one of the nation’s largest 9-1-1 call centers in Fairfax, Virginia. “It is absolutely infuriating that we can’t find this person and help them. We took this job to protect the public and we can’t.”

White-Laney says she, and every other 9-1-1 operator in the country, can’t do their jobs adequately with the tools they’ve been provided. Not from emergency services, but from the cell phone companies.

That’s because the 9-1-1 system uses technology that relies on the individual cell phone carrier.

Unlike apps on your phone, like Uber, that automatically pinpoint and send information about where you are, 9-1-1 computers have to communicate with individual cell phone networks that search for you, using less accurate technology.

If you’re inside, or surrounded outside by large structures or trees, it’s far from perfect.

“It is really frustrating to understand that a Papa John delivery person, or the Uber driver has a better, more accurate way of locating the customer or the person flagging the cab than does a 911 call taker,” said Steve Souder, Director of the Fairfax County, Virginia Department of Public Safety Communications.

WJLA reporter Lisa Fletcher, in cooperation with the Fairfax County Department of Emergency Communications, conducted a test to measure the accuracy of the four largest carriers – Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile.

Instead of hiding in some remote location, we thought we’d make it easy. We placed the calls from ground zero: inside the 9-1-1 dispatch center.

First up, T-Mobile. The Fairfax 9-1-1 center gets the call. I’m standing just inches behind White-Laney when she sees the emergency call come up on her screen.

“Ok, here you are,” she says, as she points to what the system thinks is my emergency location.“This is going to be somewhere at the dump,” she says.

T-Mobile places me more than a quarter mile away from where I actually am.

“So, if I were calling in and I had no idea where I was,” I ask, “and you were having to rely on this technology, you would send an emergency crew to the dump?”

“I would,” says White-Laney. And follows up with telling me 9-1-1 doesn’t have that kind of time to waste.

I place the next two lifeline calls using Verizon and Sprint. Verizon places me more than three blocks from my actual location. Sprint determines I am a quarter-mile away from where I truly am, telling the 9-1-1 center I’m in the back corner of the local Costco store.

The final test is using AT&T. Surprising both White-Laney and Souder, the call is not properly routed to the Fairfax 9-1-1 and instead, somehow lands at what’s called a transfer center. It takes nearly a minute, 52 seconds, to get me on the line with someone who can actually help. At that point, AT&T correctly identifies my location, which is later explained to me by Souder when we walk out the backdoor of the call center where, approximately 20 feet from the door is an AT&T cell tower.

In every single case there was a problem. In three of the four tests the location accuracy so poor, had it been a real emergency, none of the crews may have found me in time. A truth that the Former FCC Chief of Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau struggles with.

Admiral Jamie Barnett, who’s been fighting to get cell phone companies to use more accurate technology for years, say’s the results aren’t surprising. That’s because federal rules don’t require cell phone carriers to use specific technology – even though it is well-documented that certain technology is far superior to what the carriers currently use.

“The technology exists to make sure that doesn’t happen. Why wouldn’t we use it?” “The problem,” said Barnett, “is that those technologies cost money.”

The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), the industry’s chief lobbying group, responded with a written statement.

“CTIA and our member companies are working with the FCC and public safety to bring 9-1-1 into the 21st century.” The statement goes on to say they “will continue working to enhance the ability of 9-1-1 call takers and first responder to quickly, effectively, and safely respond to emergencies.”

The FCC says new rules will require cellular 9-1-1 calls to reach an 80 percent accuracy rate, or a 50-meter accuracy rate, by April of 2021.

Read the full article for more information.

Steve Souder will be a guest speaker at this year’s MACo Winter Conference, where you can learn about the transition to Next Generation 9-1-1 in Maryland.

Here are more details:

Title: Fighting Fire with Fiber? Connecting to Next Gen 9-1-1

Description: As 20th-century technologies phase out, counties must reinvent their emergency call systems. One key issue that must be addressed is how to fill the void of legacy systems that are no longer supported – through building costly and complicated fiber optic and wireless services to replace them. While the technology to implement Next Generation 9-1-1 is available now, there are many issues that local governments must work through relating to technology standards, the process of transition, governance, and funding. In this session, panelists will highlight local progress, identify gaps, and offer ideas on how to best move forward with building a statewide Next Generation 9-1-1 network.

Date/Time: Wednesday, December 7, 2016; 2:00 pm – 3:00 pm

The MACo Winter Conference will be held December  7-9, 2016 at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Hotel in Cambridge, Maryland. This year the conference’s theme is “An Ounce of Prevention.”

Learn more about MACo’s Winter Conference: