For the London Free Press – March 11, 2013 – read this at lfpress.com
The CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) has started a consultation on 911 services in Canada, including digital Next Generation 911 (NG911) services.
Digital adds new capabilities but also requires careful thought. The very essence of 911 services is public safety, routinely dealing with life and death situations. So the common commercial refrain of just ship it, it’s good enough, isn’t an option.
This consultation is part of a national approach to gather information from many sources to decide on future directions. Many entities will respond — public safety organizations, first-responder organizations and different levels of government have shown interest. The Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group is co-ordinating a response on behalf of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and Paramedic Chiefs of Canada.
Today, 911 services are strictly voice based. In an emergency, we call 911 and describe the problem to an operator who gathers the necessary information and dispatches the appropriate responders.
The 911 system is designed to know where we’re calling from, which helps speed responses and locate the caller when the caller may be unsure of, or not be able to, describe their location. Knowing the caller’s location has been a challenge in recent years, as that is not as easily done for cellphones or VoIP calls.
One issue being looked at is how NG911 services can address the location issue.
New issues to consider include text-based 911. Should NG911 accept text messaging (other than from the planned hearing impaired service)? More and more people are relying on texting as a communication method. But voice communication can be quicker and clearer, and it helps that 911 operators can sense the tone of the caller.
Should 911 accept photos and video from callers? Having a photo, for instance,of a fire or a car crash might be valuable information for both the operator and first responders.
But how would 911 operators cope with a deluge of photos or videos if many people submit them at once for the same incident? Valuable time could be wasted looking at them all. And consider the liability concerns if out of the images and video submitted there was one that if viewed could have made a difference to somebody’s life, but was not reviewed because of the quantity?
NG911 might be able to solve some existing issues such as pocket dialing. The 911 centres handle far too many accidental 911 calls, which cause a significant workload. For most people, getting a pocket-dialed call where there is no one on the line is a brief annoyance. But a 911 operator can’t just ignore such a call. It could be from someone in an emergency situation who is unable to speak or continue with the call, so each call must be investigated.
In the end, the conversion of 911 to NG911 has the potential to provide better and more efficient 911 service.
The conversion does, however, require careful thought, testing and incremental feature adoption to ensure that it remains reliable.