Re-thinking 911

Photo: Michael Yat Kit Chung
Photo: Michael Yat Kit Chung

911 wasn’t an original idea – like our democracy, it drew inspiration from other countries that had already implemented a single emergency number in the 20th century (Britain’s 999 in 1937 and New Zealand’s 111 in 1958).

President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice issued a report in February 1967 recommending the implementation of a single number for the police. Interestingly enough, it noted AT&T’s information line as an example of an established universal number. Later that year, firefighter Leonard Kershner, who represented the International Association of Firefighters, suggested a single number to reduce response time and reduce fire deaths.

In November, less than a year after the commission’s report, the Federal Communications Commission and AT&T began collaborating on a single nationwide number. Remember that at this time, AT&T was a legal monopoly that was exempted from the Sherman Anti-Trust act by Congress. Accordingly, its control over the phone system made it the necessary party in the implementation of any universal phone number.

AT&T announced 911 as a universal emergency number on January 12, 1968. Interestingly enough, the first 911 system to be fully operational was by Alabama Telephone Company. The president of ATC, Bob Gallagher, decided to beat AT&T to it and had his team set up the first system in Haleyville, Alabama in 35 days.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted Patent 3,881,060 to Bell Labs in 1977 for the patent that governs E911. Looking at the the National Emergency Numbers Association website, this is the system that persists today:

The E9-1-1 emergency communications and data system was designed in the 1970’s and has unique limitations as compared to the current application and Internet environment.

Almost 40 years later, why is this the case?

How 911 is regulated, implemented, and funded

To answer this, it’s important to dig into how the 911 system is regulated, implemented and funded.

As was the case in 1967 when the planning for 911 started, the FCC regulates and sets guidelines for 911. It does this under its authority for communications law, regulation and technological innovation.

However, the FCC doesn’t implement 911. That involves an exponentially higher amount of parties. Back in 1967, the main partner the FCC needed to work with was AT&T. Today, in 2015, when Ma Bell has been broken apart and there are many more communications companies with varying types of infrastructure, it takes much more coordination. On top of that, these companies are focused on driving shareholder value by outcompeting the other companies – the communications standards for emergency services aren’t their first priority. It doesn’t help the bottom line.

Beyond the communications companies who route the 911 calls are the dispatchers who receive the call, process it, and dispatch help. Depending on a number of factors, these dispatchers may be part of a county or municipal government and be a part of state and regional organizations. The challenge is that there are a lot of different organizations involved who all have their own implementation priorities and funding constraints. A sad example of these inconsistent priorities is the fact that 98% of cell phones are now capable of texting 911, but less than 2% of dispatch centers are equipped to receive those text messages.

A mix of fees and taxpayer money collected at the local level funds the 911 systems and dispatch operations. The largest source is a monthly fee added onto any new telephone line, wireless or wireline, of roughly $3/month. In 2009, there were over 672 million active phone numbers according to the FCC. Assuming that some landlines have been cannibalized with the rise of mobile, this means that the budget spent on 911 is at least 23 billion dollars ($23,400,000,000).

Put another way, the cost per call for initiating, routing and dispatching is around $90. Additional budgets and fees fund the emergency responders.

The rise of mobile smart phones and problems with it

Cell phones and now smartphones, have brought a slew of new challenges. The first is the fact that the phone no longer has a fixed location. Previously, when phone service was turned on, the address of that phone line was registered in a national database so that dispatchers knew the location of an incident when a call came in. Now, when a phone with an assigned number is capable of being anywhere in the world, that solution no longer holds.

Another issue with cellphones and the deregulation of communications is that the number of different types of handsets has climbed dramatically. A consumer has a lot of choices now. In the day of Ma Bell and 911’s origination, there were fewer types of phones and AT&T had much more control.

One more wrinkle is that software operating systems are further abstracting a carrier’s control over a smartphone’s user experience. Apple set this precedent when they did the exclusive deal with AT&T for the iPhone. When you first set up an iPhone today, the only bloatware you will see are Apple’s own apps – not the carrier’s.

Yet another significant challenge is the fact that smartphones aren’t actually just phones anymore. They are internet-connected, mobile computers that we occasionally use for talking. The principal usage nowadays is via apps and the utility of software-enriched, data-powered experiences. That is where consumer behavior is going and that may actually be public safety’s solace.

The openness of the app ecosystem as well as the relative similarity between the two dominant mobile platforms, iOS and Android, means there is an opportunity to circumvent many challenges. The stores of Google Play and the App Store are accessed by hundreds of millions of people every month. Only two versions of a software service need to be created to reach the vast majority of them and dramatically enhance their smartphone experience.

Apps, and the mobile operating systems, are a new opportunity to provide a better emergency communications system for the USA in the 21st century. While the idea of an app that serves as a new emergency communications channel sounds flippant, five years ago people would have said the same thing for one used to coordinate transportation.

What’s needed

The emergency communications system of the future needs to be designed for our new world of connectivity. This is a world where video can be instantly transmitted and where someone has a fully digitized real profile. That system needs to be able to take this information, route it to the best help, and make it actionable for responders. On top of that, it has to do this all in a secure way that preserves privacy.

Adoption is going to be quite a challenge as ‘9-1-1’ has been the standard for over 40 years. In today’s app-centric world, the keypad is no longer the primary interface and the need for dialing ‘9-1-1’ is antiquated. Changing the habits and behaviors of millions of people is going to be hard. A proven way to bring a new service to market is to focus on providing significant value for a specific set of people whose needs aren’t adequately met and then expanding from there.

It’s clear that the need is there. Sixty-five percent of mobile 911 calls in Silicon Valley have no location information. Seventy percent of 911 calls coming from cell phones. The FCC estimates that more than 10,000 American lives would be saved every year if this improves. That’s twice the amount of all Americans that have died since 2003 in the Iraq War.

It’s a big challenge and it’s what the future needs.

About Preet Anand

Preet Anand is the CEO and Founder of BlueLight, an everyday safety service that also provides enhanced emergency calling. Previously, he worked on solar homes for the U.S. Department of Energy and was the youngest lead product manager in Zynga's history. He has a degree in Engineering Physics from Santa Clara University.

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