James Thalman

James Thalman

Story Vault

By James Thalman

The first official 9-1-1 call made in Haleyville, Ala., on Feb. 16, 1968, wasn’t much of a leap in telephone technology. Alabama Speaker of the House Rankin Fite’s call to state Rep. Tom Bevill at City Hall could have been handled with a couple tin cans and a taught string. Bevill’s “hello” wasn’t much of a quote for an occasion that would mark the advent of modern emergency communications in North America. Observers at the time were more impressed that the call came without an intervening Alabama Telephone Company operator to make the connection, and that it could be seen coming in as the switchboard tapped out the ordinals “9-1-1.”

The great idea of connecting every home telephone across the United States to a single emergency services network that had been in the research and development phase for more than 10 years was becoming a reality. The set of numbers were first adopted by Nome, Alaska, as its three-digit emergency network access code a week later. By the end of the 20th century, 96% of the geographic United States and Canada is connected to some type of emergency response system that is connected to 9-1-1.

As far as anyone staffing communication centers or most anyone who has ever had the occasion to call 9-1-1 can attest, the network is an unmitigated success. Those who built the network accurately predicted that 9-1-1 would ultimately settle fully into the American psyche, that is if emergency services providers and the government oversight boards would recognize that existing emergency reporting methods were inadequate, especially in the face of an ever growing, evermore mobile population.

Some 45 years and an Information Age later, the 9-1-1 network remains everything it was cracked up to be. Even as the busy signal and the home telephone itself have become nearly extinct as the digital technology boom has unmoored communications from copper wire landlines and kicked them up to light speed and into virtually everyone’s hands, those three digits remain the quickest way to get real help to real emergencies today.

While no one can say the 9-1-1 system has become less reliable, the old argument that it is inadequate, especially as life is done at the speed of light with devices people carry with them all the time, is resurfacing. Dispatchers, their supervisors, and dispatch industry trade associations and vendors aren’t saying 9-1-1 isn’t good, they’re saying it’s just not good enough. The summer of 2013 sees the industry caught in the undertow created by the natural forces of digital communication innovation and the apparent infinite consumer demand for more, better, faster devices and applications. Interviews by The Journal with a cross-section of call centers show that the urge to purge the landlines and upgrade to a true next generation 9-1-1 full-broadband digital system ranges from an open-armed embrace, to general acquiescence, to its inevitability.

“Getting 9-1-1 up and running took about four decades, but it was a pretty short, well-charted trip,” William Harry, director of Valley Emergency Communications Center (VECC) in West Valley City, Utah, told The Journal in May. “Everybody knows how we got here. So, everybody’s got a compass but exactly where we’re headed has been tough to plot.”

Centers feel themselves aging at an alarming rate. Dispatchers and supervisors say that the public believes that call centers are as technologically sophisticated as they are. Several attending the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch (IAED) NAVIGATOR conference in Salt Lake City in April used the recorded music industry as a template for what dispatch is going through: While people can create, display, and stay in touch via the Internet all by themselves, call centers are a team, must be available 24/7, and are still trying to figure out how to get from cassette tapes to compact discs. Dispatchers interviewed for this article say a 9-1-1 call still comes down to a voice-only conversation, and no matter how much extra digital data needs to be managed, in the real world the exchange of information will remain the core job of dispatch, no matter how sophisticated technology becomes.

Mignon Clyburn, acting chairwoman and point person for the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) NG9-1-1 plans, reaffirmed that notion this past June when announcing that telephone service providers must, no later than Sept. 30, 2013, provide bounce-back alerts to people who are trying to text 9-1-1 to a comm. center that is not yet capable of handling text messages.

She stated unequivocally that any such digitized advancement in communications was to “complement the voice telephone call, not replace it. No virtual communication can take the place of a one-on-one phone call in an emergency.”

Call centers are working toward implementing text message handling, but many front-line dispatchers and their supervisors aren’t sure that plugging into the wide open streams of digital data won’t add static to what has been a straightforward and proven communication network.

The trail from that day in Alabama wasn’t a short hike but it was well-marked, Curtis James, a veteran dispatcher in upstate New York told The Journal. “Me and everyone I know embrace it and dread it. It’s inevitable, I suppose, but the truth is we have a hard time taking seriously what amounts to a nifty way for people to virtually socialize. If you’re in trouble, and if you’re able, call us.”

In the past 10 years, however, that notion that digital technology enhancements will enhance the 9-1-1 network is an idea that has been turbocharged by the rapid and unceasing development of the latest digital communications devices that make the good, old reliable voice-only network look like an Edsel next to a DeLorean.

It’s not that we don’t see the benefits of a “network of networks” that proponents of NG9-1-1 predict it will be, James said. “It’s the next smart, right step. It’s just that a true next generation 9-1-1 is just trickier and complicated by a factor of four. Not the least of the problems facing a center is the market is never going to be finished making technology new and improved. Once you buy into an information/data management system, you’re obsolete anyway.”

Other center managers equate modernizing their shops with going from using a hi-fi by plugging in a set of headphones to building and setting up a bi-amped, seven-speaker, subwoofer-enhanced home theater system. The basic conundrum is the headphones still work really well, but wouldn’t it be great if we had surround sound?

A tough act to follow

With great success comes great expectations. Even though the public 9-1-1 serves is using digital devices that weren’t even imagined 10 years ago, they have gotten used to 9-1-1 being there when they need it no matter what. That’s a tough act to follow. And centers feel as likely to catch up as Wile E. Coyote is to catch the Warner Brothers’ Road Runner. NG9-1-1, a multi-agency, carefully organized effort to fully digitize 9-1-1, is already 10 years old, and full adoption of all the data necessary to bring comm. centers fully into the 21st century is at least 10 years away.

A handful of stouthearted and financially flush emergency communication agencies are out in front scouting the way. Those centers are or are about to be at the text messaging stage.

In an age when consumers can collect and share loads of digital data as fast as a dispatcher can say, “OK, tell me exactly what happened,” the traditional circuit-switched 9-1-1 networks are telegraphs by comparison.

NG9-1-1 has inertia to the third power. Some public safety veterans say there hasn’t been this much anticipation in the industry since the original 9-1-1 network powered up.

“That’s no exaggeration; that’s the magnitude of change we’re talking about here,” Trey Forgety, National Emergency Number Association’s (NENA) government affairs director, told The Journal in a telephone interview from NENA’s Alexandria, Va., headquarters.

PSAPs, trauma centers, poison control centers, the U.S. Coast Guard, disaster management center, “you name it, can create partnerships as easy as making friends on Facebook,” he said. “We can’t not do this. Helping people in their hour of need remains Job 1. A fully realized NG9-1-1 just helps us do that better.”

From here to there

NG9-1-1 might well be the definitive example of “easier said than done.” A lot has been said, and said again. White papers have been put out by the FCC, NENA, and the U.S. Department of Transportation, to mention the Big 3 trying to chart the here-to-there for the broadband era of emergency dispatch.

The FCC has reported that state and local governments will spend up to $1.2 billion over the next 10 years for 9-1-1 upgrades, with an additional $1.5 billion spent on recurring connectivity, hosting and operations, and maintenance. (See the 2012 July/August edition of The Journal, “Left Out in the Cold” for more details on call center funding.)

Getting there is more journey than destination and in more ways than one, Thomas Ginter, vice president for product management at Telecommunication Systems (TCS), told The Journal. His company’s bread and butter is solving the E-9-1-1, NG9-1-1, text message, and wireless communications challenges in general. Last summer, TCS purchased microDAA GIS Inc., a provider of NG9-1-1 systems for $37 million. The company is also spearheading a new SMS (Short Message Service)-to-9-1-1 initiative to help PSAPs be part of the texting generation, which sends more than 2 trillion messages a day.

It’s clear that the company sees NG9-1-1 as a growth industry, Ginter said.

“It’s more than that,” he noted. “The public’s capacity for information access and sharing has transcended the landline, static devices of emergency call centers. Catching up and keeping up is an imperative of our times. Communication centers can’t be waiting for the arrival of NG9-1-1, it’s already here. There are new applications and vehicles for digital data-sharing becoming available every day.”

Ginter said he understands and his company has researched the urge for dispatchers to want to hang on to what they know—the ears-only processing of calls. To make the notion sit better with the dispatchers who are in the driver’s seat of every call, Ginter’s favorite analogy is comparing the car his family had when he was a kid to one his kids have now.

“Let’s take the 1969 Pontiac Parisienne,” he said. “In its day, it was Pontiac’s most popular of all the so-called Wide-Track cars. It was big, powerful, and its interior had all the bells and whistles. Take the fellow back in ’69 who is driving that car and teleport him forward into a Cadillac Escalade. He’ll know what to do with the steering wheel, the gas pedal, the brakes, the turn signals.”

He’ll feel sure he can drive the Escalade, Ginter said, noting that if the anachronistic guy at the wheel looks closer at his “Space Age” dashboard, he’ll regard the number and array of buttons as something transplanted from an Apollo mission control console. “He’ll see buttons where cranks used to be, and he won’t have the first idea what half of them do or even what the terminology in the electronics section of the owner’s manual even means. He’ll see what looks like a radio, but when he flips it on, he’ll be lost in the hundreds of options to select. And what does ‘AUX’ mean and ‘DVD?’”

Our fellow caught in the time warp will still be able to drive the car off the showroom floor without any trouble, Ginter said. At first, all that new technology designed to make him a better, safer driver will look like a mess of distractions. But, through a process of trial and error—and perhaps even resorting to carefully reading the owner’s manual—he soon starts to see his ’69 Pontiac as dear but not nearly the sweet ride he thought it was.

“The point is dispatchers tend to see NG9-1-1 upgrades in their centers as distractions right now, and I don’t blame them,” Ginter said. “The voice-only network has worked better than fine up to now. But, once they get used to the advantages of the ways a fully IP-based system can help call processing, dispatchers will be just like the public is with the Internet and ePads—impossible to get along without them.”

The one thing dispatchers want to do—quick, safe, accurate delivery of help where it’s needed—will still be job No. 1, “they’ll just be able to do it better and better. We’re just getting started with what is nothing short of an incredible digital age of dispatching.”

The medium is the message

The fact is that the message for as long as there have been emergencies and human beings has remained the same: Get help to the scene now.

“The only dynamic part of the emergency services equation anywhere today is the technology,” said Steve Proctor, executive director of the Utah Communications Agency Network (UCAN) and a 42-year veteran of the radio side of emergency communications, told The Journal in May. The information age is having its way with “the other side of every 9-1-1 call. Technology is having its way with everybody and is adding to an abiding sinking feeling that despite their own best efforts to stay ahead of the digital curve, they are falling behind.”

No matter how well their system is working, many have reached a point of diminishing returns when getting by with obsolete and sometimes nearly extinct equipment simply won’t do, he said.

UCAN has been modernized once before. The 100-tower radio system was updated and retooled as a world-class network to handle all two-way communications during the 2002 Winter Olympic Games held in Salt Lake City. More than 10 million calls came through the hub during the Olympics and Paralympics without a hitch, Proctor said.

“If we had tried to handle that kind of traffic without upgrading our system, we would have failed miserably,” Proctor said. “But today, given the significant increase in population in the state and the accompanying increase in emergency communications, that system is maxed out. Plus, it’s now 10 years old and getting more obsolete every day. Radios break down; replacement parts stop being made. And broadband is just another way of saying we’re getting obsolete.”

Proctor mentions the past decade in part to remind folks that the 2002 Olympic Games came off incident-free, despite being less than five months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City. “We felt a lot like the poster child for public safety, and the world was watching.”

He also mentions Olympics as a lens through which other emergency communicators might view the current push to retool for NG9-1-1. If steps, particularly funding streams and territorial boundaries, aren’t set and agreed upon, Proctor said, “a lot of PSAPs could be headed toward a calamity UCAN averted because we didn’t have time for turf wars and fooling around in 2002. We had to be up and running—no excuses—by Feb. 8.”

That clarity of purpose might not be coming through in the nascent NG9-1-1 era, Proctor said. And, the proportion and scale of individual call centers might be much smaller, “but the goal of protecting the public’s safety and well-being looms just as large.”