Emergency Response In State of Emergency

What do you do when your nation’s system for emergency calls is in a state of emergency? That’s the question on the minds of politicians and citizens alike all across the country. The truth of the matter is that the 911 system in our nation has fallen so far behind, so quickly, that no one is sure how we can save it.

It used to be that when you had an emergency, whether it be a car accident, a house fire or a medical issue, you could count on 911 to be able to properly handle your call. The problem now is that so many people make calls from phones other than traditional land lines. The system that has had more than 30 years to perfect itself is finding itself starting from scratch. You see, when a 911 call is placed from a regular land line phone, the 911 system is able to match that phone number with a corresponding address in the computer and allow the operator to dispatch the proper authorities without any input from the caller. This is not true with cell phones and newer Voice Over IP (VoIP) phones.

When someone places a 911 call from a cell phone, a significant number of 911 call centers in the U.S. are unable to track the location of a cell phone call using the equipment they have. This is where the problem lies. Many rural counties, and even some urban areas, just don’t have the means to complete such a task, despite the technology being available for about five years.

The delay in the catch up can be life threatening in some cases. A story in a recent New York Times article presents the true severity:

Last December, the Cherokee County 911 operators in ‘hellip; Oklahoma ‘hellip; listened for 27 minutes and 34 seconds to the screams and retching of a caller, Misty Kirk, as an intruder beat her in front of her two daughters ‘hellip; There was little else they could do.’

In some towns across the nation, the situation is even worse, with calls going unanswered or even being misrouted. The solution in some counties is just to advise residents to call the police or fire department themselves.

As with most public services that we often take for granted, the general public doesn’t really think or care about 911 until they go to use it, and it doesn’t work the way they expect it. Another problem in some areas is redundancy, making callers speak to a 911 employee and then a dispatcher at the police or fire department. Issues like this are often political in nature and aren’t noticed until someone points it out.

Currently, there are three different levels of 911 technology in use, with the most basic being the original that tells dispatchers the number and address of a land line call. Next is Enhanced 911 Phase I which can provide a phone number of a cell phone caller and the location of the cell tower that they are connected through. The downfall of this system is that in some cases the nearest tower could be five miles from the caller’s location. Phase II works off the same general principal but is able to pinpoint the location within 50 to 300 meters depending on the carrier.

What intrigues me is that I can remember about two or three years ago that the FCC was riding the cell phone companies for not having their phones GPS capable yet because the 911 systems were going to use that for location purposes. Now that we have all of the major carriers on board and selling GPS capable phones, 911 is the one not holding up their end of the bargain.

Nationwide there are over 6,000 911 call centers in operation, all in varying states of upgrades. Because of this, it is hard to know exactly how much it would take to get everyone up to Phase II standards. The National Emergency Number Association estimates that it would take about $340 million but cautions that even this number is uncertain because of the differing sizes of counties and what equipment they may have. The areas leading the nation in Phase II adoption are New Jersey and Connecticut with 100 percent participation and New York at 80 percent.

In 2004, Congress made a move in the right direction by passing the Enhance 911 Act, authorizing $250 million a year for 911 technology grants, but no money was ever appropriated. Most urban areas are doing just fine without this money to get their systems upgraded to Phase II standards. It is the poorer, more rural areas that suffer and desperately need federal money to support these changes, as they are the ones in the greatest need of the location technology. A 911 operator in Cherokee County cites examples such as people that call saying, ‘I’m on the water, and I’m at the tree swing, and how come you can’t find me?’

I know that this is a bit clich’eacute;, but it really is time that we begin fighting the war at home and solving some of our own problems. I’ve found myself writing about too many problems that need to be solved in our own country that are going unaddressed because the administration views the war in Iraq as a higher priority. When we reach the point that our own emergency systems don’t work properly, that should be a huge red flag. All that we can do is wait and hope for improvement, bro!

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