Folk-singing legend Bob Dylan once mused, four decades ago, that “the times, they are a-changin'.” That's still true today, and no more so than within America's public-safety answering points, or PSAPs. Developed at a time when emergency calls came only from landline phones, 911 call centers across the country now are finding themselves grappling with the modern ways of communication.

It is the 21st century, after all — an era characterized by an abundance of mobile devices that can send text messages, photographs and video, and intelligent telematics systems that can send crash and speed information to 911 call centers. However, the tools that make call centers in the business world more efficient and effective — namely IP-based networks, call-distribution technology and intelligent management systems — so far are proving elusive to most PSAPs.

“What we have is a situation where the 911 system in North America is dangerously out of date,” said Guy Clint, director of solutions in the public-safety division of Avaya, which provides contact-center technology to both public safety and the business market. “I think today that the 911 system works only because of the incredible individuals who go above and beyond to make sure help goes to where it is supposed to.” (For an example, see page 4.)

Clint added that if he were to call a catalog company to order goods such as clothing, the call-taker would have better tools than the typical 911 call-taker — who is dealing with life and death situations.

A much bigger toolkit

The primary problem facing the country's 911 centers is that they originally were built on analog platforms, which served their purpose well when few people owned a cell phone and none used voice-over-IP (VoIP) technology. Today, that infrastructure is outdated in a mobile and digital world.

As such, there is a movement within the PSAP community to move toward IP-based networks to gain the flexibility needed to handle emergencies in the 21st century. In 2002, the National Emergency Number Association developed a conceptual model for next-generation 911, or NG 911. It saw that the future was IP-based networks. It has now completed a set of standards, procedures and recommended processes that will enable PSAPs to deploy IP in a manner that will offer consistent quality of service.

“Today's 911 can handle voice and a little bit of data, but it cannot handle a lot of data,” said Roger Hixson, director of technical issues for NENA. “One of the fundamentals of NG 911 is to put ourselves in a common interface so that whatever is out there — wireline, cellular, VoIP over cable or WiMAX — if it uses IP, it will be able to quickly interface with the NG 911 system within a matter of days, much faster than the two years it took for us to bring on wireless 911 and VoIP into the current 911 system.”

As such, IP architectures will unleash a host of new applications and opportunities for 911 centers, generally without the burden of expensive hardware upgrades. For instance, PSAPs would be able to create virtual call centers from anywhere in the U.S., accept 911 text messages from cell phones, view streaming video from an incident, process telematics information from vehicles involved in a crash — and pass all of that information on to first responders.

In Galveston, Texas, Avaya has used IP telephony and distributed communications systems to link nine geographically distributed 911 centers in order to deal with the slew of calls that has increased significantly since the advent of mobile phones. As a result, each of the PSAPs is able to maintain its identity by taking emergency calls from local citizens, but when too many calls come in, they are moved to one of the other centers as an overflow measure. Moreover, if 911 call-takers ever had to evacuate because of an impending hurricane, they could still take 911 calls in another center.

One of the greatest needs for PSAPs is the ability to accept text messages from mobile-phone users who have become accustomed to using that technology as a primary communications tool. This came into sharp focus during the April 2007 shooting rampage at Virginia Tech that killed 32 people. Students attempted to send text messages to 911, not knowing that the call centers weren't equipped to receive them.

The idea of obtaining telematics information from vehicles also is highly attractive to PSAPs. Many automobiles are expected to be equipped in the relatively near future with Automatic Collision Notification (ACN) technology, which can report on crash location, airbag deployment and vehicle speed. PSAPs would like to get their hands on this information, said Tim Lorello, senior vice president and chief marketing officer with TeleCommuncations Systems, which provides E911 services as well as messaging and location infrastructure for wireless operators. How fast a vehicle was traveling before a crash has a bearing on the type of help to dispatch. If a vehicle was moving faster than 50 miles per hour, for instance, a 911 call-taker may know to send a dispatch team that has with it the Jaws of Life.

The proliferation of cameras and video on mobile devices also creates a valuable tool for 911 call centers, as call-takers and dispatchers can evaluate the emergency area and send proper assistance. For example, a tanker truck may flip over on the highway and a passing driver may be able to take a photo of any hazardous material symbols, Lorello said.

Perhaps just as important as receiving this information is the ability to pass it directly to first responders and others in the response chain without having to verbally regurgitate it.

“The general understanding of the next generation of 911 involves bringing the ability to present a myriad of information to communications centers but also passing that on to EMS, the Department of Transportation or mass transit,” said Stephen Wisley, technical services manager with the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials. “That information may not be pertinent to the initial call-taker, but hospital emergency rooms might find it valuable.”

The big questions: When? How?

Unfortunately, experts say the move to IP likely won't happen for another two to three years as funding remains the primary hindrance, especially with revenues from the 911 tax on wireline calls dwindling as people migrate to cellular and VoIP networks.

“All of this technology exists, but the question is, how do we get public safety upgraded so they can take advantage of using it and saving lives?” Lorello said.

Hixson said NENA's goal is to see a handful of full-featured NG 911 PSAPs operating by the third quarter of 2009. A nationwide deployment schedule is another matter. “There are funding issues, regulatory revisions and even state regulations that specify what components can be used in 911. Taken literally, PSAPs can't do NG 911,” Hixson said. “Then there are jurisdictional issues.”

In terms of funding, Hixson believes a combination of federal, state and local funds will be required to move to all-IP. Federal money might help with the large-scale components that are needed to cover large geographical areas, while the databases that will run on the networks might be funded on the state or local level. Some vendors are working to assist PSAPs in finding the necessary funds. For instance, Avaya has been steering its customers to PSAP interoperability grants that also can be used to upgrade to IP and other call-center solutions.

Meanwhile, Congress has enacted legislation — which President George W. Bush is expected to sign into law — that would let PSAPs use funding from the Enhanced 911 Act of 2004, which authorized $1.25 billion over five years for E911 Phase 2 upgrades, for next-gen migrations.

Despite the steep upfront costs that the transition to next-gen systems would generate, vendors argue that the move to IP would save money in the long run. Galveston now operates from two unified mapping and CAD systems over a centralized IP network, realizing significant cost savings, Clint said, adding that the IP system will prepare the city well for a full migration to IP across the state of Texas.

But switching to IP networks is just the first step in a long process. NG 911 systems also will require changes to software, databases and workers' procedures.

Having approved its first next-generation standard last December — the i3 standard that outlines the IP-network foundation for NG 911 — NENA plans to release a second version of i3 by the end of this year, Hixson said. Meanwhile, considerable work remains to ensure that databases align across the country so emergency calls can be transferred between PSAPs as efficiently as possible.

Fortunately, many software and database companies are working to smooth the ride for PSAPs moving into the future. For example, CyberTech International, a provider of digital recording services, has developed a hardware-agnostic recording solution for 911 centers that not only records audio portions of emergency calls but also screen shots and key strokes for improved fact checking and training.

But the future gets more exciting, said Tony Procops, president and CEO of the company's North America division. CyberTech's development projects include recording video, pictures, text messages and calls from cell phones, and it is working on developing technology that will introduce real-time keyword spotting to the call-recording process. In other words, the recorder will keep a list of key vocabulary words so that the system proactively alerts, for instance, the chief of police when someone says the word “bomb.”

A dose of reality

The caveat, however, is that the architecture is “all Web-based, so you have to have a very intuitive Web-based access to this content,” Procops said. “You have to have a very easy-to-use interface for these users.”

Indeed, the plethora of information coming into a 911 center once it has transitioned to next-gen technology promises to overwhelm call-takers if software isn't developed to handle the load and worker procedures aren't streamlined, Wisely said. Consequently, APCO and NENA are working to manage the expectations of the PSAP community and the general public about NG 911.

Wisley, who once managed a 911 call center with 145 workers, says emergency call-takers of the future will need to undergo intensive training to manage the multiple streams of information coming at them. Software also can alleviate some of the problems. For instance, business rules implemented within software to set priorities and understand key words can help filter out information before it reaches the call-taker, Hixson said. Instead of requiring a call-taker to read lines and lines of telematics information, the software would do some computations to determine the probability that the crash resulted in a head injury.

That's where the modern processes and technologies of today's call centers in the civilian sector come in, said Avaya's Clint.

“We can see a Tower of Babel emerging if you don't have a way of segregating out what is important,” Clint said. “The first real step toward bringing productivity and work flow into the environment is through concepts like call distribution.”

That might involve the ability to prioritize calls and forward them to experts, such as those who understand the lingo of text messaging or have an expertise in telematics. That routing process is a major trend in the civilian call-center world, said Dave Radoff, director of analyst relations with Genesys Conferencing.

According to Radoff, one of the big challenges for the 911 community is that, right now, anyone who places an emergency call initially gets treated in the same manner. Instead, 911 call centers need to be able to recognize the intent and need of the caller in order to make an informed decision. “The whole idea is elevating or escalating a call in terms of the information coming in,” he said.

Managing the expectations of the people they serve promises to be an equally vexing challenge for the PSAP community. For instance, an uproar could ensue should some 911 centers in a given region be able receive text messages while others can't. “That expectation is going to be with you no matter where you go in the United States,” Wisley said. The same holds true for other mobile-phone applications.

In short, the job of a call-taker in a 911 center already is a high-stress endeavor with a high burnout rate. The PSAP community has to make sure next-gen technology helps them do their jobs better without adding to the stress.

All-IP 911 call-center benefits

  1. Link disparate call centers in one county, enabling overflow calls to route to other virtual centers and allow workers to keep taking calls even if they are evacuated.

  2. Unified systems such as GIS mapping and CAD over a centralized IP network, realizing significant cost savings.

  3. The ability to receive valuable data, including text-message 911 calls, photographs, streaming video and telematics data.

  4. The ability to forward data to appropriate first responders such as EMTs and police.

  5. The ability to evolve applications because they reside on an IP platform, which means 911 call centers don't have to forklift upgrades just to add new features.

  6. Access to higher-end call-center technology that routes calls and information to the appropriate destinations.