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.
"Technology around communications are evolving really fast and 911
doesn't keep up really well with that," said Gabe Elias, a senior
systems engineer at a Virginia call center testing the new technology.
When the first 911 call was made in 1968 from Haleyville, Ala., it
came in over a traditional land-line phone. In a land-line system,
emergency operators simply match the phone number in a database of
registered addresses and dispatch responders.
But telecommunications have become exponentially more complicated,
requiring costly upgrades to thousands of call centers around the
"Whenever a new telecom technology came along, we had to completely
rebuild the infrastructure," said Henning Schulzrinne, a Columbia
University computer science professor leading the program.
In the 1990s, the country slowly upgraded to accommodate cell phone
callers. Because they aren't fixed to a location, it became slightly
more difficult to find them. Emergency call centers locate callers
based on signals from nearby cell towers or by tracking global
positioning system chips embedded in the phones. Even now, about 25
percent of all call centers cannot provide both the location and
number of wireless callers.
Today, an estimated 2.9 million people have switched over to VoIP
technology, which means a call could be routed through servers all
over the country before it reaches a 911 center. They could be dialing
through a computer using Wi Fi, or through an Internet-enabled phone .
Currently, if a person dials 911 through VoIP on a computer, they have
to type in their location, which could be imperfect if they're in a
state of panic or are in an unfamiliar place.
Pressure to offer emergency services reached VoIP providers last year
when a 17-year-old girl in Houston tried to call 911 through her
house's VoIP line after an intruder shot her parents. But when she
dialed 911, she reached a recording and had to run over to a
neighbor's house to call the police. The Texas attorney general filed
a lawsuit against Vonage Holdings Corp., charging that it did not
clearly disclose that its 911 services were not always available. The
case is still pending.
The future offers even more bewildering possibilities for 911
operators. There could be widespread use of WiMAX-enabled mobile
phones, which would make calls through wireless broadband networks
extending for miles, making it impossible to locate them using cell
"There's not a single technology that's going to work for locating
everything," said Walt Magnussen, the director of telecommunications
at Texas A&M, which is also playing a leading role in the project.
However, the new system will at least be able to route all different
kinds of data, he said.
The increased ability of the new system to transmit emergency data
raises privacy concerns for some who worry that photos of emotionally
distraught victims or medical information could be leaked.
"There certainly could be abuses," said Beth Givens, director of the
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "Visuals and text messages would become
public record that could later be obtained by news media and others."
But NG911's backers say the system will run on a private network and
that the benefit of locating victims in distress outweighs threats to
privacy. As new applications arise, particularly ones that involve
medical history, lawmakers will decide what will be allowed through
the revamped 911 system.
"I don't think there has ever been a technology that man has invented
that could not be abused," Magnussen said.
Kim-Mai Cutler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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