Emergency Services Evolved but Have Room to Grow
Since the mid-1970s, 911 systems have relied on automatic routing and phone number and location identification capabilities.
When wireless phone use increased in the 1990s, service providers began leveraging GPS and cell tower triangulation to provide caller location information in emergency situations, a shift that’s been referred to as Enhanced 911.
Some facets of mobile technology — such as such as uninitialized devices without a callback number and the introduction of mobile Voice over IP (VoIP) — still posed spatial identification and system interaction issues.
In response, a gradual transition to an IP-based emergency services system, dubbed Next Generation 911 (NG911), is underway across the country.
The system’s structure will allow emergency response efforts to include information from wireless phones, texts, video chat and other digital technologies that have become increasingly common in recent years.
The National Emergency Number Association (NENA), an 18,000-member professional organization that promotes 911 implementation and awareness, released the i3 architectural framework, an outline for the NG911 implementation, in 2011.
NENA’s vision involves replacing the master street address guide, a decades-old resource that connects phone numbers to street addresses, and bolstering the GIS data-enabled elements that will help map, route and validate calls’ locations.
In addition to being more compatible with modern devices, the NG911 system features enhanced indoor area identification options, which will allow 911 dispatchers to tap into vertical z-axis data, along with horizontal x- and y-axis coordinate information, to narrow callers’ locations down to a specific floor within a building. The Federal Communications Commission is requiring nationwide providers to make the z-axis 911 functionality available by April 2025.
Implementing an IP-based Emergency Services Network, or ESInet, can also let dispatchers and first responders — as well as multiple public safety agencies — share information, improving the availability of incident-related intelligence and streamlining communication.
Integrating the Next 911 Iteration Is an Ongoing Activity
Several states and municipalities are beginning to use NG911 technology.
Public safety answering point (PSAP) call centers in counties in New York, Texas, Pennsylvania and at least 16 other states, for instance, can receive 911 texts; and Maine, Indiana and Vermont have implemented 911 texting capabilities statewide, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
A number of other states are in the process of transitioning to a NG911 approach. Two — Kentucky and Massachusetts — report their PSAPs are using a comprehensive i3 call-routing structure, and a system that meets the NG911 standard has been implemented across the state.
While progress in other regions can vary, an increased number of states — 35, compared with 33 in 2019 — say they’ve adopted a statewide plan for NG911 implementation.
In Illinois, for example, the effort is being overseen by the Office of the Statewide 911 Administrator within the Illinois State Police. In May 2021, the Prairie State announced AT&T had been chosen to develop and implement its new 911 network.
Statewide 911 Administrator Cindy Barbera-Brelle said in a press release that the new system, which will eventually allow residents to communicate with 911 via text and also send images or videos, would improve access to emergency response services by enabling 911 centers to exchange additional data with responders, improving call processing times and situational awareness.
Given the importance of location-based information accuracy, the state has set a goal of having a 98 percent or higher match rate for geospatial data sets involved in the system.
Effective Utilization Requires Infrastructure Investments
The increased availability of higher-frequency routers — coupled with enhanced connectivity capabilities like the move to 5G, which meant greater amounts of data could be transferred to and from command and control centers — have helped drive GIS technology use in recent years.
Even with strong connectivity options, access to robust data sources is a must to maximize GIS capabilities’ potential. Some state and local agencies may need to address information gaps within portions of their enterprises before they’re able to fully add and use a NG911 system.
Training and technical assistance can also be required to operate and manage the system’s ESInet, software and other aspects, which some states may need to outsource due to staffing or skill constraints.
However, provided government officials can flesh out and connect the relevant informational resources via an IP-based structure, GIS data use can truly be an emergency response game changer, potentially reducing the risk responders may face in unfolding emergency situations and increasing the likelihood that an incident’s outcome will ultimately be positive.