Communication can take many forms, the most prevalent of which is the spoken word, something the emergency 911 system in the U.S. has accepted quite well from people in distress during the past 40 years. But while a flurry of electronic devices has made text, data, pictures and video integral parts of everyday life for many Americans, those innovations have left 911 behind.

By most accounts, it is clear that the 911 system designed in the 1960s cannot change fast enough to handle the rapid pace of technological evolution. Although cell phones have been commonplace for more than a decade, public safety answering points (PSAPs) continue to face challenges associated with location data that accompany emergency calls from cellular devices, despite billions of dollars being invested across the country to retrofit the 911 system to accept such calls.

But at least cell phones primarily are used for voice calls, something PSAPs were designed to handle. The same cannot be said for communication forms such as text, data, pictures and video — each of which could provide valuable insights to first responders if leveraged properly. These increasingly present forms of communication cannot be used in legacy 911 networks, and retrofitting those systems to handle them would cost as much, or more, than building a new system from scratch.

With this in mind, the emergency-calling industry is working to develop a vision of the 911 system of the future — next-generation 911 (NG 911) — that is expected to use the power and flexibility of IP technology and intelligent software to let PSAPs respond appropriately, regardless of the location or form of communication used by someone needing help.

“That's the big deal about NG 911,” said Rick Jones, director of operational issues for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). “We're finally saying that we think we're ahead of the curve. When you invent the devices, we can figure out a way to get [the devices' information] in.”

It's a lofty goal, particularly to the many PSAPs throughout the U.S. that have not been able to upgrade their facilities to enhanced 911 (E911), the wireless Phase II specification that enables the receipt of cellular calls with location information. (See graphic.)

However, much of the technology needed for NG 911 is available today, said Roger Hixson, director of technical issues for NENA. “This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff,” he said. “Most of this can be done right now.”

Indeed, large-area IP networks that can support voice, data and video are prevalent throughout the enterprise sector, and the necessary supporting databases certainly can be created, although standards need to be established for them, Hixson said. The one technical issue that remains problematic for NG 911 is automatically locating the device transmitting the emergency information, but so much time and energy are being devoted to resolving the matter for cellular calls that most observers believe a solution will be reached.

For these reasons and the fact that vendors are building NG 911 products, Hixson said he believes a handful of full-featured NG 911 PSAPs will be operating by the third quarter of 2009. Jones agreed that it likely will take some time before NG 911 spreads across the country.

“With wireless Phase II, we had a few ahead-of-the-curve entities that implemented. Then, about two years into the process, a whole bunch of them started,” Jones said.

But he hopes the NG 911 migration will go faster because several PSAPs in a region will be upgraded at the same time, as opposed to wireless Phase II, which was a “PSAP-by-PSAP deal.”

Indeed, in the state of Indiana, an IP network supports wireless E911 calls today, and that same network could be used to support NG 911 across the state in the future, Jones said. Meanwhile, New York City plans to take the first tangible steps this summer toward fulfilling Mayor Michael Bloomberg's 2007 promise that its emergency call centers would be able to act on multimedia communications, said Jason Post, the mayor's deputy press secretary.

“We'll launch a tool this summer that will let people send in their photos to 311 and 911,” Post said.

In a next-generation PSAP, a call taker automatically could access video footage from a surveillance camera near a caller's location during an incident. In a crash scenario, telematics data from the car could be transmitted directly to the PSAP, providing emergency personnel with a better idea of the type of accident they will find upon arrival.

In fact, clothing — everything from T-shirts to motorcycle helmets — is being developed that will monitor the wearer's vital signs, said Jones. This data also could be sent automatically to a PSAP to notify emergency personnel of an emergency health issue.

While few question the potential value of such multimedia information, there are concerns that call-takers — already under tremendous strain trying to handle an oft-distressed caller — could be overwhelmed by all the simultaneous sources of information, said Willis Carter, president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO).

“There's a big push for the NG and the IP formats, but I'm afraid we're not putting enough emphasis on what happens to it once it hits the [communications] center,” Carter said. “These guys and girls that run our centers are overly taxed right now with processing information. Information is wonderful if you're in a position to process it and do something meaningful with it. That's my basic concern.”

Jones said the potential for a call-taker to be inundated with information in an NG 911 PSAP is a “very valid concern” but one that can be alleviated with technology and good supervisor judgment. For instance, thresholds can be established regarding telematics data coming from a car crash.

“Do you [as a call-taker] need to read page after page of telematics data?” Jones said. “No, you need an intelligent, software-driven system that reads the data and tells the call-taker, ‘There's a 95% chance in this crash that there's a brain injury.’ … They don't have to know the speed of the car and all that stuff. They have to have data that's going to save lives.”

Hixson echoed this sentiment, noting that software also can help prioritize calls when crash data are involved. “It can say, ‘You better look at this one first, because this one could be a lot worse than the two fender-benders you already have,’” he said.

The key is establishing database and software rules that let call-takers see only the conclusions needed to make dispatching decisions, Jones said. More detailed telematics information — from cars, buildings or a person's clothing — can be sent to first responders or simply maintained for later access.

“This is going to be a managed, software-driven system, and the managers have to make sure they minimize negative impact on call-takers and maximize the impact for making successful 911 emergency calls,” Jones said. “If the call-taker is totally overloaded, it's a management problem.”

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 the i3 standard 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.

Hixson said the details for transitioning from legacy 911 to NG 911 also need to be worked out, although he anticipates many PSAPs using their NG 911 facilities primarily for wireless calls initially and moving traditional wireline telephony calls to the next-generation system later.

But most observers believe the biggest challenges lie outside technology. Funding is always a big issue for PSAPs, and the much-anticipated federal funding authorized within the Enhanced 911 Act of 2004 basically has not materialized. While that funding was supposed to enable Phase II PSAP upgrades — something that was funded locally in many states — more recent legislative initiatives would allow the funding to be used for NG 911, which might make congressional approval more realistic. Others fear that an economic downturn could spoil such efforts.

Meanwhile, regulatory issues also must be addressed before NG 911 can become widespread. While NG 911 is designed to use open IP standards, which in turn allows the leveraging of myriad technologies, many states still consider 911 as strictly a wireline telephony function, Hixson said.

In addition, local, state and federal government agencies need to establish a new regulatory paradigm that allows the creation of a seamless, national NG 911 system.

“To me, this is the 911 version of putting a man on the moon,” Hixson said. “We need state and national cooperation to get this done sometime before the end of our lifetime.”