9/11: What Our Emergency Response Systems Still Can't Do

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Ten years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks demonstrated huge gaps in the nation's emergency communications systems, there is still a long list of standard networking capabilities that are unavailable to first responders and 9-1-1 operators.

Police officers, firefighters and EMTs from different jurisdictions don't have a standard, interoperable radio network for communicating with each other. Most 9-1-1 call centers don't automatically failover to backup locations in the case of physical disaster or excess call volumes. And emergency personnel can't do what every smartphone user can do: send and receive text messages, pictures or video.

"The unfortunate truth is that the capability of our emergency response communications has not kept pace with commercial innovation -- has not kept pace with what ordinary people do every day with communications devices," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in an August address to first responders.

Here's a list of 10 emergency communications capabilities that the United States lacks:

1. We don't have a nationwide, interoperable broadband network for public safety.

Many metro areas, including New York City and Washington, D.C., have upgraded their antiquated two-way radio systems since 9/11, but first responders still don't have a standard, nationwide wireless system. For example, when New York City police traveled to Louisiana in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, their radios wouldn't work.

The biggest holdup to building a nationwide, interoperable broadband network for public safety is a lack of funding. The Obama administration estimates the cost of this wireless network at $10.7 billion; it has proposed raising the money by auctioning frequencies no longer used by television broadcasters.

"Every day of delay risks compromising the vital goal of interoperability, the core of the 9/11 Commission's recommendation," Genachowski said.

2. Most 9-1-1 call centers don't have automatic failover to other locations.

The nation's 9-1-1 system is 43 years old, it's based on analog technology, and it lacks the redundancy of modern private networks running the Internet Protocol (IP). One key missing capability is dynamic rerouting of calls from one 9-1-1 call center to others outside the area.

INITIATIVE: U.S. gets serious about fixing emergency communications

Most 9-1-1 centers -- called Public Safety Access Points (PSAPs) -- can choose one other PSAP as backup. But having only one backup system with a fixed geographic location isn't enough in a major disaster. Hurricane Katrina, for example, crippled 38 separate 9-1-1 call centers in the New Orleans area, resulting in thousands of emergency calls that went unanswered at abandoned locations.

"Having a fixed geographic location for your backup systems is no longer an issue when you go to an IP backbone," says John Chiaramonte, lead associate with consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton. "The ability to dynamically reroute calls to better handle those calls by limited resources is one of the main features of next-gen 9-1-1."

3. 9-1-1 call centers can't fail over nationally in the case of a statewide disaster.

A handful of states, including Vermont, have deployed 9-1-1 systems based on IP and have dynamic rerouting of calls among their own PSAPs. But none can automatically send their overflow emergency calls to operators in another state if there were a statewide crisis.

DETAILS: Hurricane Irene puts Vermont's new 9-1-1 system to the test

Jim Lipinski, Enhanced 9-1-1 IT manager for Vermont, says he is looking forward to the day when it's possible to forward excess calls to another state in what he calls a "mutual aid" relationship.

"We normally send calls to the closest PSAP, but if that PSAP can't answer, we roll over to the next closest, and then we roll to Tier 3, which is any position in the state," Lipinski says. "We're looking forward to the day where we can have Tier 4, which might be operators in Washington State or Texas -- somewhere far away where they're not getting the same weather as we are getting."

4. States can't set up virtual 9-1-1 call centers in remote locations.

Once a 9-1-1 call center runs IP, it's possible to set up a virtual call center as easily as hooking a laptop up to the network. Experts say this capability would be useful in the case of a regional disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina.

BACKGROUND: Standard for Internet-based emergency calls nears completion

"This would allow responders to be available and to operate virtually. All they have to do is plug in a laptop, and they can work anywhere they can get the data," says Trey Forgety, director of government affairs at the National Emergency Number Association. "In the case of a situation like Hurricane Katrina, you could move your own 9-1-1 responders to a safe location and allow them to answer the calls remotely."

5. 9-1-1 operators can't accept text messages.

In August, Durham, N.C., became the second 9-1-1 call center in the nation -- after Black Hawk County, Iowa -- to accept text messages from cellphone users. Durham's six-month pilot project is aimed at victims who need to silently contact emergency personnel, as well as at the hearing impaired. The service is open to Verizon Wireless users only.

Text-to-9-1-1 has some technical limitations: SMS communications take longer to transmit than phone calls; operators can't access the cellphone location for texts; text messages can only be 160 characters long; and there is no back-and-forth conversation with 9-1-1 operators.

"There are a few pilots with text messaging ... but widespread deployment is not on the horizon," Lipinski says. "The carriers have no business incentive to make an investment that provides safety features that don't give them a competitive advantage. I really think it's going to take regulatory action."

6. 9-1-1 call centers can't accept photos or videos.

Eyewitnesses to car accidents, crimes and other emergency situations could help first responders by sending photos or video from their smartphones to 9-1-1 call centers. But this capability won't be available until next-generation 9-1-1 systems based on Internet standards are deployed.

"Enabling the public to transmit photos, video and data will dramatically enhance the ability of first responders to help those in need," Genachowski says. "It enables the creation of 21st century command centers that can give first responders broad and timely situational awareness -- dramatically improving the ability to stop crime and save lives."

7. 9-1-1 call centers can't accurately pinpoint the location of cellphone calls.

Half of all 9-1-1 calls come from cellphones, yet many 9-1-1 operators can't pinpoint the caller's location as accurately from a cellphone as they can from a landline phone. States need to deploy what's called Enhanced 9-1-1 service in order to determine the precise location of cellphone calls.

In July, the FCC strengthened its Enhanced 9-1-1 location accuracy rules and required all wireless carriers to meet more stringent metrics. However, these rules apply to outdoor calls only, not in-building calls.

8. 9-1-1 call centers can't accept data directly from other automated systems.

Next-generation 9-1-1 (NG 9-1-1) systems will be able to accept data directly from OnStar and other automotive telematics systems, providing dispatchers with information about accidents such as whether an airbag has released. They could even receive wireless signals from medical devices if a patient were having an episode.

"If a patient wearing a 24-hour cardiac monitoring device experiences a cardiac event at home, the device could automatically send a wireless signal to the NG 9-1-1 system to request aid, and also transmit the patient's location, identifying data and relevant medical information," Genachowski says.

9. Government agencies can't send location-specific emergency alerts.

Starting in December, smartphone users in New York City will be able to receive emergency alerts from government agencies through a new program called PLAN, for Personalized Local Alerting Network. The system will be enabled for AT&T, Sprint and Verizon customers. It sends text messages about disasters and public safety threats to all users within a specific geographic location.

The PLAN system is expected to launch nationwide in 2012, and the FCC is encouraging all wireless carriers to support it.

10. Emergency systems still get overloaded when a disaster strikes.

It's not uncommon for 9-1-1 centers to get inundated with calls. On December 27, 2010, New York City's 9-1-1 dispatchers received so many calls related to an ongoing blizzard -- 50,000 in 24 hours -- that they were overwhelmed, and many callers received an all-circuits-busy recording.

Deploying NG 9-1-1 technology would help by boosting allowing dynamic call routing in states, regions and nationally.

Read more about lan and wan in Network World's LAN & WAN section.

This story, "9/11: What Our Emergency Response Systems Still Can't Do" was originally published by Network World.

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