The 411 on 911
With the first call placed in 1968, the 911 system has continued to grow and evolve with technology eliminating the gaps in the time of emergency

By John Bendel, editor-at-large

911. It’s the number you call when things go terribly wrong. In the U.S., people call 911 more than 480 million times a year, according to NENA, the National Emergency Number Association.

As everyone in our industry knows, many of those calls come from the highways, where lives can ebb away waiting for help. It used to happen a lot more often than it does today. The 911 system is often a life saver, and the number 911 is ingrained in virtually everyone’s mind.

“I believe 911 is the No. 2 most recognized ‘brand’ in the world,” said Chris Carver. The No. 1 brand is Apple, Coca-Cola, or Nike, depending on the poll. Carver is PSAP operations director for NENA. In the 911 world, PSAP stands for Public Safety Answering Point.

Located within the D.C. beltway, NENA is “the primary nonprofit association focused on 911 technology availability, accessibility, and other issues,” Carver explained. “It was founded in the early 1980s in response to early efforts to make 911 available to the entire country.”

Those efforts, by NENA, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), and other groups, have largely succeeded. “The last place in the U.S. without 911 service was a multi-county area in southern Illinois,” Carver said. “After recent state legislation, 911 has been implemented there as well.”

911 goes digital

Today, 911 is changing with something called NG911 where NG stands for “new generation.” NG911 offers a number of improvements to current 911 service. Callers will be able to send pictures, video, and texts to 911. NG911 includes networks that link call centers. Such links can be an enormous help when individual response centers are overwhelmed with calls.

That can happen even when there is no disaster. Carver cited an example: “Let’s say you have a car fire on a highway in a very busy area during rush hour. Hundreds of people are driving by and they all have cell phones,” said Carver. “That could generate more calls than a response center can deal with.”

The need for a universal number was clear by the late 1960s when the FCC green-lighted a nationwide emergency number everyone could easily remember. The first 911 call was placed in 1968, and the system evolved from there. But only the number was national. The actual call centers are run by local, county, or state governments.

In the early 2000s, 911 changed to accommodate cellphone callers. Enhanced 911, or E911 as it was called, was phased in but ultimately enabled response centers to know where a cell call came from, something they usually knew with a landline call.

More than 70 percent of all 911 calls now come from cellphones, according to the FCC, and the percentage continues to grow.

Wrinkles in the system

Yet 911 is not perfect. On rare occasions, for instance, you may have trouble reaching a call center. Slow or no response has also been noted in equally rare instances.

“Well, there are myriad issues involved,” Carver responded. One of those issues is cellphone coverage.

“Being on the road all the time, truckers are heavily reliant on cellphone coverage to actually reach the 911 system,” Carver explained. “I have no doubt that in the hundreds of millions, probably billions, of miles driven by truckers each year they pass through some areas with coverage problems.”

Another challenge is the local administration of 911. It can vary from excellent to not so great.

“There are no national minimum training laws to be a 911 dispatcher,” Carver said. “In some places it requires minimal training; in other places extensive training. Compare that to your barber or other professional where you may need a thousand hours of training.”

Users of internet phone service called VOIP (voice over internet protocol) have a special set of problems using 911 (See related article, Page 82).

Even with those challenges, Carver said, 911 is up, running, and saving lives just about everywhere.

Just as E911 adapted to the cellphone, newer technologies have inspired more changes. Taken together, those are generally referred to as NG911.

At the core of NG911 is a move away from analog phone systems to IP technology, Carver explained. IP stands for internet protocol.

“NG911 uses internet protocols as its language, but it does not mean 911 will be on the internet,” Carver said, stressing the point.

“It’s actually far from that. It’s an interconnected web of phone networks, of databases, of communications systems that will allow significant improvements,” he explained.

“One of the many things it will do is to better back up 911 centers when they have an issue or if they experience a peak demand call event.” Carver said. NG911 will enable linked response centers to assist with incoming calls.

“NG911 will allow us to better organize, distribute, and manage those types of events,” he said.

As noted earlier, NG911 will enable callers to text 911 and send pictures or videos. The texting option will be most helpful to the hearing or speech impaired. It will also be useful in situations where speech is overwhelmed by noise, or when speaking is impractical for some other reason.

Don’t worry; your truck will call 911

NG911 will enable various devices to connect with 911.

“Things like sensors and alarm systems,” Carver said. “Another example is gunshot detection sensors. Whenever they detect a gunshot in a particular area, they turn a camera in that direction and report automatically to the 911 center.”

Gunshot detection has already been implemented in places as diverse as the city of Newark, N.J., and the University of Connecticut campus.

Similarly, 911 can be built into vehicle technology to reach out for help even if no one in the vehicle can.

“Versions of that exist today,” Carver noted. “GM’s OnStar with its automatic crash detection system is just one.”

Clearly, as NG911 takes hold, that ability will be built into truck electronics as well.

Carver explained that NG911 is being implemented on a state-by-state basis, citing Maine and Vermont as early examples. There are multi-state discussions going on, he noted, and some smaller places are implementing NG911 as well.

“911,” Carver concluded, “is one of the most successful projects in American history.”