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Moving 911 into Age of Texting

HOUSTON — A crashing sound in the middle of the night awakens you. Seconds later, you hear heavy footsteps moving toward your bedroom. You quickly grab your cell phone and dash to the closet.

While crouched under suits and shirts, you realize the intruder might hear you calling 911. What should you do?

Send a text message.

It’s not possible now, but within the next two to five years it could be.

In addition to text messages, you could be able to send photos of a purse-snatcher caught in the act or photos of a vehicle accident to 911.

It’s all part of what’s called Next Generation 911, and 911 districts in the Houston area are gearing up for it. Basically, what it means is that you could use any communication device from anywhere to reach 911.

“We’re all excited,” said Sharon Counterman, deputy director of the Greater Harris County 911 Emergency Network, which includes Fort Bend County. “It’s something that will increase what we do for the public and serve them much better. Many younger people believe they can do a text message today to 911, and they cannot,” Counterman said.

Recent technology is driving the change. Mobile devices have altered the way people communicate, yet 911 networks haven’t kept pace, say emergency communication officials.

Many 911 systems still operate on analog technology from 40 years ago, when basic 911 was first introduced. Others have made the transition to digital technology but still rely on analog to get calls to an answering center.

Next Generation, however, is Internet protocol, or software based, so it can communicate with all devices regardless of format.

Aiming nationwide

The National Emergency Number Association, representing the 911 industry, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Commerce are pushing the concept.

The federal government has spent about $5.5 million during the past two years on research and development to design what officials hope will eventually become a seamless, nationwide 911 system.

“In this era where everybody is texting, it is very imperative that we accommodate the way people communicate,” said Paul Brubaker, research and innovative technology administrator for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Texas A&M University and Columbia University have received federal grants as part of the project to build an operational model, and researchers have tested it in five cities, including College Station, during the past five months.

During a demonstration last month in College Station, 911 officials from across the state got a chance to see the model receive text messages and live video.

Many 911 officials say this will be beneficial because operators will have more crucial information to pass along to police or emergencymedical crews responding to an emergency.

For example, if someone witnesses a vehicle accident on the highway, they can take pictures and send them to 911. The operator can determine from the pictures the severity of the accident and determine whether they need to dispatch only an ambulance or an ambulance and a firetruck equipped with the Jaws of Life.

Also, now that many cars are being built with OnStar systems, the capability exists for those systems to share information with a 911 operator with Next Generation equipment, Brubaker said.

OnStar can relay information such as the location of the accident, the point of crash impact, the position of the vehicle, whether air bags were deployed and where people are seated in the vehicle, he said.

“All that information is immediately available to 911, and you don’t have to be on the phone verbally describing it,” he said.

In the College Station demonstration, researchers connected an OnStar system with the Next Generation model. The vehicle owner’s name as well as the make and model of the car appeared on a simulated operator’s screen.

Researchers also demonstrated how the network can transmit emergency data from a call center in Washington, D.C., to a call center in College Station to show location is not an obstacle with the new network.

During Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, for instance, there was no staffing for the 911 centers, said Walter Magnussen, co-director of the Internet2 Technology Evaluation Center at Texas A&M and researcher on the project.

With the new network, those calls could have been redirected to a call center in another city or state, he said.

“Essentially, since Next Generation is Internet protocol based, it’s limitless on what you can do,” Magnussen said.

Fearing too much data

Bobby Wright, executive director of the Galveston County Emergency Communication District, agrees. But his major concern with the new 911 is that dispatchers might end up with too much data to handle.

“On a typical 911 call, you have one person dealing with a call,” Wright said. “If you give them a lot of data, you have to give them a way to digest it all.”

Although the Next Generation model is still being fine-tuned, federal officials plan to complete the development stage by the end of the summer and the transitional planning by the end of November, Brubaker said.

By next year, the framework and standards for the new network will be available to local districts so they can begin to upgrade their networks, he said.

But the transition won’t happen overnight. It will take two years or more for local districts to move to the new system, depending on their existing equipment and funding, Brubaker said.

Plans for the area

In the Houston area, the Greater Harris County 911 Emergency Network, the Montgomery County Emergency Communication District and the Galveston County Emergency Communication District are taking steps in that direction.

As members of the Texas 911 Alliance, they have created an Internet protocol-based database that will be a necessary component for districts to move to Next Generation. The alliance is working with AT&T on the project, and they’re testing the database in San Antonio.

The database would enable districts to locate a digital device, such as a voice over Internet protocol phone or digital phones, and to then route the call to the correct answering point on the first try. Because location is fuzzy with digital devices, the database helps to resolve the ambiguity, said Bill Buchholtz, executive director of the Bexar Metro 911 Network District, the pilot district for the new database.

If the database works for Bexar County, the alliance will run it in smaller districts, including Denton and Tarrant counties, and then move to larger districts such as Harris County, Buchholtz said. The Alliance is made up of 24 emergency communication districts.

Harris and Montgomery counties are both working on upgrading their networks so they’ll be ready to transition to Next Generation.

Galveston Countyjust switched to an Internet protocol-based network about 10 months ago. It cost about $1 million, which is $1 million less than what the district paid for its old system, Wright said.

“It puts us in a position to do things we haven’t done in the past,” he said.