Technology is changing so quickly that emergency communication
systems are struggling to keep pace
By Kim-Mai Cutler, Globe Correspondent
Picture a highway crash: a vehicle flips over in the center lane. Ten
cars plow into the twisted wreck. Panicked witnesses dial 911. They
shoot video of the scene with their cell phones. Drivers too
distraught to speak text message the call center. A vehicle with a
built-in security system automatically dials 911 after the air bags
are deployed. It forwards the driver's health history, letting police
know he has had two heart attacks before.
It's not a far-off scenario with the development of Next Generation
911 or NG911 for short, a new emergency call system run via Internet
protocol that will allow rescuers to plug and play all of the latest
communications technologies. A consortium funded with a $570,000 grant
from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration,
part of the Department of Commerce, is conducting trials at call
centers in Virginia and Texas, routing voice-over-Internet protocol
(VoIP), mobile video, and text messages to 911 responders. The group,
which includes Columbia University, Texas A&M University, and the
National Emergency Number Association, hopes to run a full-scale test
in 2008, using real emergency calls.
An overhauled 911 system would open a world of possibilities:
responders could send a video demo of the Heimlich maneuver to a cell
phone if a family member is choking, or firefighters could receive a
burning building's floor plan before they reach the scene.
Because it is Internet-based, it would be easier to incorporate
unforeseen technological breakthroughs, unlike the current struggle to
handle VoIP calls and the decade-long process of upgrading to handle
wireless 911. Under the new architecture, data would be broken down
into packets sent through the network, which handles several different
types of information. In the old system, data flowed in a continuous
stream, meaning only one type of data could be handled at a time.