In the event of an emergency, it sure would be nice if we could call 911 using all the cool features available on our smartphones. We use smartphones for almost everything else: shopping, travelling, research, and communicating in a digital environment that includes text, photos, video, voice, GPS, and a linked network of knowledge that brings the whole world to our fingertips. So why not life-saving emergency services?
Thanks to a new generation of technology-savvy legislators in the General Assembly, that reality is right around the corner.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, the number of 911 calls placed by people using wireless phones has outstripped those made on traditional landlines in recent years. “It is estimated that about 70 percent of 911 calls are placed from wireless phones, and that percentage is growing,” they say on their website. “For many Americans, the ability to call 911 for help in an emergency is one of the main reasons they own a wireless phone.”
According to the North Carolina 911 Board, the percentage of 911 calls placed from wireless phones in the Tar Heel state is closer to 75%. As of October 2015, 115,688 emergency calls were made from traditional wired phones — while a whopping 494,759 were made from wireless phones over the same period. And the number is increasing every year.
What’s more, the number of American homes with wireless-only phones has risen steadily in recent years. According to a 2015 National Health Interview Survey, the number currently stands at 47.4 percent. And that number is increasing every year as well.
But the 911 System (technically called a Public Safety Answering Point, or PSAP) hasn’t kept pace with the technology in our pockets.
Imagine you are out hiking in the mountains with a friend. He’s managed to lose his footing, whack his noggin on a rock, and now seems to be unconscious. He’s not responding and there’s no one else around, so you instinctively reach for your smartphone as the first point of action. Since you’re not on a traditional landline (with a location that automatically pops up on a 911 dispatcher’s screen), emergency responders won’t know exactly where you are. Maybe you try looking for trail markers or flagging down passers-by for help.
But why should you be wasting precious time on things your smartphone could already be relaying to the 911 dispatcher, like your exact location via GPS?
What if you wanted to to send a picture of your friend’s head injury to the 911 dispatcher to get advice on the best course of action? Tough luck — 911 dispatchers currently don’t even have the capability to receive photos, much less video or GPS.
Thankfully, the legislature has approved a plan to move North Carolina 911 services into the digital age — and bipartisan legislation passed into law a few months ago (House Bill 730) authorizes the North Carolina 911 Board to create a special fund for implementing a statewide, feature-rich Next Generation 911 service called “NG911,” in conformance with national standards.
The standards are currently being developed with the help of 39 States and territories, including North Carolina, which are continually providing data for a “National 911 Profile Database.” The progress being made is documented in the 2014 National 911 Progress Report.
According to the standards team, the technology to implement NG911 systems is available now — but the transition to NG911 involves much more than just buying a few new computers. “Implementing NG911 will include activities of many people, who will coordinate efforts to plan and deploy a continually evolving system of hardware, software, standards, policies, protocols and training,” the report goes on to say.
House Bill 730 moves North Carolina one step closer to making fully compatible 911 services a reality. The new law requires the NC 911 Board to set aside a portion of all 911 fees collected for a Next Generation 911 Reserve Fund. The funds collected could be used for a number of statewide 911 projects or to directly fund PSAP implementation of NG911 systems.
For more information on the issues involved in implementing NG911, see the publication from the 911 technology experts at Intrado entitled “Next-Generation 9-1-1: The Essential Guide to Getting Started.”
Another new law, co-sponsored by Representative McGrady, increases the criminal penalties for intentionally misusing the existing Emergency Services 911 system. Read more about that here.