911 services face an emergency of their own

May 08, 2012

Source: Government Computer News

911 services face an emergency of their own

Since 911 was set aside in 1968 as a national emergency call number, the service has been upgraded to provide better information for dispatchers and remains the backbone of first responders.

But rapid advances in communications technology, while presenting opportunities for better service, also present a tough test for system, as adoption of consumer devices outpaces the ability of the 911 infrastructure to handle them. Telephones, once fixed in a certain place, are now mobile, and voice is becoming passé in a world where real-time text, images and video are at everyone's fingertips.

"The communications world is changing so very fast, and staying on top of it requires being very quick to address the new technologies," said Norman Shaw, executive director of government affairs at Polaris Wireless, a company that provides 911 location services.

Location services have become increasingly important since telephones have been untethered and phone numbers no longer are tied to an address.

"Wireless 911 calls are about 80 percent of our volume," said David Lucas, director of Enhanced 911 services for Lexington, Ky.

Two interstate highways, I-64 and I-75, pass through the area, which also is home to the University of Kentucky, so the trend of mobile dialing might be higher in Lexington than the national average. But it is not only students and travelers who are calling from cell phones, Lucas said. Senior citizens are the heaviest users of 911 services, he said, and "I'm surprised how many of them are getting rid of landlines and going to cell phones."

Cell phone carriers are required to provide basic location information to Public Service Answering Point and to route 911 calls to the proper answering point based on the caller's location. But pinpointing the location of a cell phone caller can be hit or miss, Lucas said. It varies with the technology that the carrier is using - Global Positioning System-enabled or simple triangulation of the cell signal - the density of the cellular network and the local strength of radio-frequency signals.

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