9-1-1 Gets a High Tech Facelift

Mobile phones brought huge changes to 9-1-1 emergency systems. Now the internet of things and AI will take them to the next level, improving safety for all of us.

Who saw The Guilty on Netflix?  It was the perfect pandemic-shot movie because the only actor was Jake Gyllenhaal. Most of the rest of the cast appeared as voices on the other side of a 9-1-1 call. Joe Baylor (Gyllenhaal) begins the film as a frustrated, brusque, overworked, and unsympathetic  9-1-1 dispatcher, until a call comes across the transom that finds him having to deal with a real-time abduction.

I thought of The Guilty, and the pressures put on 9-1-1 dispatchers as I caught up (via Zoom) with Jeff Robertson, president of Life/Safety at Intrado. Robertson sees his company as responsible for moving 9-1-1 into the modern age. It’s an age that should mean less stress on the part of the call takers and more reliance on Internet of Things (IoT) devices and Artificial Intelligence (AI). If Robertson’s vision of the technically enhanced 9-1-1 system works, characters like Gyllenhaal’s will have very different scripts in the next few years.

The Birth of 9-1-1

9-1-1 came into life in1968. That year, AT&T announced the designation of 9-1-1 as a universal emergency number. It was not until the Public Safety Act of 1999 that 9-1-1 was officially established as the entire nation’s emergency calling number.  Today, approximately 96% of the geographic U.S. is covered by some type of 9-1-1. Now, Next Generation 9-1-1 calls go over dedicated networks to the appropriate 9-1-1 answering point (PSAP), which determines the caller’s location and reason for the call. A trained dispatcher locates and contacts the emergency help that’s needed. All carriers and phone service providers are involved, and if you scrutinize your phone bill you will see that we all pay a bit into the 9-1-1 fund in the form of monthly surcharges.

The mobile phone era brought many changes to 9-1-1 systems. In 1996 the FCC established its first set of rules related to mobile phones and accessing 9-1-1, by mandating accurate routing to the correct public safety agency, along with call back capabilities and location accuracy requirements. In the early days of wireless, there was a reason to hold onto your landlines, since they did deliver accurate call back numbers and location. Over the years the FCC has continued to modify wireless 9-1-1 requirements. In 2015, the Commission adopted a comprehensive set of new rules and deadlines to improve location accuracy for wireless 9-1-1 calls, including requirements for the delivery of a dispatchable location to 911 call centers (the system generates a physical address including information such as floor, suite or apartment).  In November 2019 the Commission enhanced the rules again, to established vertical location accuracy rules.  The improvements and mandates on wireless calls 9-1-1 calls is critical.  According to Nena.org there are 240 million calls “placed to 9-1-1 each year. And, in many regions, 80% of them come from mobile devices. ”

Smarter Emergencies

As our mobile devices get smarter and can share more information beyond our voices, 9-1-1 will morph from a self-reported call  to a more automated system that can either eliminate the need for phone calls entirely or augment calls with enhanced data about the nature of the emergency. Though it may be as long as ten years before 9-1-1 is completely automated through the use of data provided by wearables, telematics, and cameras, there’s a belief (a bit subjective) from folks like Robertson that 20% of emergency calls could ultimately be handled without voice.

Already, cameras, wearables, and in-vehicle telematics are contributing to the mix of information that can shed additional light on a 9-1-1 event. Smart products like Nest and Ring offer connected smoke detectors and intruder alerts (for an extra fee). They can be connected to a monitoring service such as ADT. In turn, ADT can leverage services like Intrado’s Emergency Data Broker to pass that data on to a 9-1-1 call center. Systems like these allow for a more informed response and a clearer picture for the call taker, dispatcher, and first responders.

New technologies are helping assist 9-1-1 calls that are made from remote outdoor locations as well. Wearables like Flare are built for notifying friends or even reaching 9-1-1 in an emergency. Two students in Hawaii have created a special helmet that contacts 9-1-1 on severe impact. Another great emergency response tool will be smart watches. Apple has a riveting commercial showing the power of a smartwatch in an emergency.  Some reports predict Apple will add crash detection to Apple Watches and iPhones in 2022.

In bike and car accidents, it’s easy to imagine how other connected devices figure in. Your car or bike camera can connect to your mobile device or to a 9-1-1 system.  In the case of a vehicle, telematic devices can gather a lot of data. They can, for example, relay that airbags may have been deployed or whether the vehicle is right side up or upside down. Plus, they can report on the vehicle make and model.

First responders will make different decisions or bring different equipment if they know before arrival that there’s been a heavy impact car accident as opposed to a fender bender. For example, an extremely hard impact at 50Gs  almost guarantees that someone was seriously hurt or worse.

Sensors in the car will determine if someone was in the passenger seat, so responders can know that two people could be hurt inside the vehicle. The possibility of multiple victims can be very important in how a first responder looks at an accident when they receive this supplemental data. Robertson says that major car manufacturers leverage this Emergency Data Broker to send that data to the PSAP.  In the future, even more data collected from devices like smart watches may let a dispatcher know the caller has a diabetic condition.

Partnerships like the one between Intrado and ADT drive the future scenario home. If an ADT burglar alarm has gone off, it want to contact 9-1-1 for a response even if no actual 9-1-1 call was placed. “Imagine if,” Robertson says, “alarm companies were able to eliminate voice calls and instantly communicate with emergency responders. Imagine what an extra minute or two could do for first responders.” (Today an alarm alerts a call center employee to call a local 9-1-1 number.)

False Positives

But IoT-based emergency calls can be fraught with false positives.  An examination of 9-1-1 calls in 2020 showed that only 23 to 39 percent of them really required emergency intervention for life-threatening issues.  False positives from burglar or smoke alarmsamplify the needless responses. Luckily, IoT devices are steadily improving (so they can, for example, differentiate between a raccoon and a burglar).

The latest 5G wireless systems could be big enablers for IoT and emergency response systems. The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) has announced it will support 5G connectivity. It has already deployed 5G in 38 cities. As applications develop over time, EMS teams will see the benefits of 5G’s ultra-low latency time and high bandwidth.

Emergencies like shootings, burglaries, accidents, life-threatening falls, and natural disasters have always been with us and won’t go away.  But when every second counts, enhanced 9-1-1 information may mean the difference between life and death.

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