February will mark the 50th anniversary of the first 911 call in the United States, in Haleyville, Ala. Despite that early breakthrough, it took time before 911 service became widespread.
In March 1973, the White House’s Office of Telecommunications issued a national policy statement that recognized the benefits of 911, according to a chronology published recently by the National Emergency Number Association. By 1987, half of the U.S. population had access to 911; as we entered the new century, that number increased to more than 90 percent.
From the beginning, technology played an important role in 911 development. For example, IT professionals had to ensure that switches originally designed for seven-digit phone numbers could process the shorter 911 number and route calls to the correct emergency agency.
Later, enhanced 911 technology automatically alerted dispatch centers to location and phone number information. Today, Next Generation 911 promises a more flexible and scalable system that will keep up with communication innovations, including text messaging.
Tech Helps Dispatchers Stay Vigilant
At the same time, the technology that enables this critical public safety service also exposes the system to security risks, such as the 911 distributed denial of service attack that hit multiple states in October.
The attack illustrates how IT officials on the front lines work hard to protect this critical system, and must remain on guard. Fortunately, security solutions increasingly help address potential 911 vulnerabilities. In Arizona, for example, Cmdr. Chip Lemons and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office use virtual desktops to isolate the county’s computer-aided dispatch infrastructure.
“We put logical separations in place, so we are not exposing our CAD system to unauthorized access or viruses,” Lemons says.
Bad actors will always attempt to disrupt institutions or exploit networks for gain. It is comforting to know that Lemons and other dedicated public officials will continue to stay vigilant and keep the 911 system working, saving lives in the years ahead.