The Nation's 9-1-1 system has been an unqualified success story for more than 40 years. During this time period, our telecommunications technology has evolved rapidly, providing a nation on the move with the ability to place a call from a wide range of devices and locations. The growing market penetration of both wireless and Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) telephony and the increasingly nomadic world they reflect have presented important challenges for the 9-1-1 system. Americans who place calls from mobile devices during emergencies have greater expectations for connections to the 9-1-1 system than the current system can deliver. Because text, data, images, and video are increasingly common in personal communications and vehicle-based safety services, Americans further expect that the 9-1-1 system can accommodate these dynamic communications modes.
However, the older, analog-based infrastructure and equipment used by emergency call centers (known as Public Answering Service Points [PSAPs]) has not kept up with new technology capabilities and cannot easily connect with a wide range of devices on the market today.
An Outdated 9-1-1 System
The PSAPs predominantly use older, analog-based infrastructure and equipment; the overall system architecture has essentially not changed since the first 9-1-1 call was made in 1968. As a result, the current system is not designed to accommodate emergency calls from the range of new technologies in common use today including:
- Laptops, Internet Protocol (IP) phones, IP wireless devices, or other devices that deliver audio, data, video message, picture message, and live video
- Cellular devices that transmit SMS and data and text messaging
- Third-party call centers that employ telematics (e.g., Automatic Collision Notification), audio, and/or data as part of their client services, such as General Motors' OnStar service
- IP and Video Relay Services (VRS) that assist the deaf and hard-of-hearing community (text and video)
Additionally, PSAPs have limited capability to identify the location of a call from a mobile device or to recognize the technology generating the call in order to route the call to the appropriate responder in a timely manner.
Limited Emergency-Call-Center Capabilities
Existing emergency call centers are incapable of some critical functions such as:
- The ability to link with one another during emergencies (PSAP calls to one another currently dead-end at the PSAPs with no way to act as back-up for one another when operations in one part of the country become overloaded or shut down due to circumstances such as hurricane evacuations or wildfires.)
- The ability to accommodate streaming video and automatic teleconferencing with interpreting services to better meet need of the deaf/hearing community during emergencies
Limited Call Processing Capabilities
In context of today's expectations existing 9-1-1 software and call taker business processes face critical limitations:
- The original software was not designed to answer or process a variety of multimedia data (e.g., voice, text messages, images, and video) and, in particular, to accommodate how call takers address data received simultaneously from multiple sources.
- There are limited linkages to supplemental or supportive data such as: interactive maps; links to reference data on a particular location, surrounding hazards, or inputs that could change the emergency response or improve responder safety; and decision support on important questions to ask callers to enhance information on the situation.
- Call taker software is not designed to transfer calls when the volume of callers exceeds the available resources.
Institutional Barriers to National Transition
In previous decades, each introduction of a new technology – for instance, wireless/cellular or Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) – has required system modifications at the thousands of 9-1-1 systems and PSAPs across the Nation. Not only has this approach been costly, it has meant that changes have not evolved equally in all parts of the country. However, in evaluating the opportunity for transitioning the entire nation to a new system, it is recognized that there are multiple paths to the nationwide implementation of NG9-1-1. Although the NG9-1-1 system is envisioned as an interconnected system of local and regional emergency services networks ("system of systems"), network boundaries of emergency services may vary depending on local requirements and organizational frameworks. Also, the path to consistent, nationwide implementation is highly dependent upon age of the underlying infrastructure, funding, policies, and priorities of the 9-1-1 Authorities. The figure below provides a graphic illustration of the evolution of technologies and changes to the 9-1-1 system since the 1960s. Mobile and vehicle-based technologies are yet to be fully incorporated into a 21st century 9-1-1 system.
Collectively, these technology and system challenges prevent the easy transmission of data and critical sharing of information that can significantly enhance the decision-making ability, response, and quality of service provided to emergency callers.
Evolution of Changes to 9-1-1 Systems and Technologies