Tapping tech for public safety

Canada’s 9-1-1 service is woefully behind that of other jurisdictions. How can technology help?

When we call for emergency services, we don't think about how we'll be taken care of – we just assume it will work. That unquestioning faith turned around for unwary IP and cellular phone users when those technologies were first introduced. Operators couldn't pin down the caller's location. People died.

Other tech glitches also resulted in deaths. In 2013, a Texas woman's estranged husband found the motel she was hiding in and stabbed her to death. Her nine year old daughter called 9-1-1 for help, but couldn't get through because she hadn't known to dial 9 first to get an outside line.

That tragedy prompted the US government to pass Kari's Law in 2017. It requires multi-line phone systems like those in hotels and businesses to allow direct calling to 9-1-1, and to provide notification to a central point of contact (for example, hotel security) when a 9-1-1 call is placed.

Canada, however, is behind the times. According to a Globe & Mail feature from 2008, updated in 2017, Canada is facing a crisis with 9-1-1 service so far out of date that it is putting lives at risk. And although the CRTC has directed telcos to update, the deadline isn't until 2020. We have to wonder where the mandatory 9-1-1 fees we're charged each month are going (Spoiler: into telco general revenues in part, according to the Globe).

That hasn't stopped vendors from developing next generation 9-1-1 technology that is coming into use south of the border and elsewhere, nor has it stopped Canadian organizations from taking advantage of the new tech internally.

Next generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1) builds on Enhanced 9-1-1, which automatically provides the caller's location (Basic 9-1-1 requires callers to tell the operator where they are), offering new ways to interact such as text messaging (Canada already has text-based 9-1-1 service, though potential users have to register for it), and allowing video and photos to be included in the communication. It will provide IP-based communications as well as traditional phone and cellular service.

The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) has been wrestling with this challenge since the early 2000s. Its NENA i3 Solution is becoming the go-to for NG9-1-1, with the CRTC Emergency Services Working Group accepting it as the baseline reference architecture for NG9-1-1 in Canada.

Mark Fletcher, chief architect/global vteam leader, Public Safety Solutions, Avaya

"In the 60s, the public safety mission was straightforward," said Mark Fletcher, chief architect/global vteam leader for Public Safety Solutions at Avaya. Operators would take a call over a land line, and dispatch responders by radio. But today, he noted, the job has evolved, though the mission remains the same: take a call, determine what response is needed, and dispatch appropriately.

The trouble is, even though a smartphone often knows where it is to within 1 meter (how else do you think your Uber finds you), when a user calls 9-1-1, location may only be reported within 1 kilometer or more.

"How," asked Fletcher, "Can Uber and Google know exactly where you are, and 9-1-1 can't?" It's because 9-1-1 networks are built on voice only, he explained, while Uber and Google use apps that access data networks.

"To fix that problem, you have to use the F-word: forklift," he said. The existing systems can't be fixed.

Several companies, including Avaya, have come together to offer the equivalent of NG9-1-1 within enterprises today. Conveyant Systems, Engelbart Software, and Beta 80 have demonstrated how their products work together on the Avaya Aura platform to become the first NENA i3 compliant NG9-1-1 system.

When a call comes in to the 9-1-1 operator, the Beta 80 system provides call taking, computer-aided dispatch, mapping, mobile apps, radio integration and reporting services. It can show the exact location of a situation on the map of a facility, saving time for responders and potentially saving lives.

Conveyant's contributions include voice positioning services, so an emergency call placed from within an enterprise gets routed to the correct emergency services, regardless of the location of the company's phone system. For example, if a call is placed through the central switchboard from a satellite office in another city, the system knows to call that city's emergency services, not those servicing head office. It can even handle calls from remote workers if need be. It also offers a pop-up notification service.

Automatic detection of emergency situations can speed response, and in the European Union, as of April 2018, all new vehicles will be required to contain a technology that detects and reports serious accidents (it's rather like OnStar's automatic crash response). It will automatically transmit information to emergency services, including the exact location of the incident, travel direction, whether it was triggered automatically or manually, and other relevant data, and Engelbart's EU eCall snap-in will automatically populate the emergency service call screen with the data from the eCall.

The combined system allows live video streaming to emergency workers through a Web portal so they can monitor the situation in real time. Feeds from drones can even factor into the equation. Responders no longer will need to go in blind.

Another company, Alertus, provides emergency notifications in large venues like hotels, universities, or sporting facilities. It equipped the 312,000 square foot Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre with smart technology tied into the fire alarm system that broadcasts alerts on digital screens, and through a text-to-speech voice interface, along with the system's usual strobe lights and sirens. The next stage, the centre says, could be push notifications to cell phones.

The University of Saskatchewan ties together its Cisco IP phones, on-campus computers, and digital screens with Alertus to create a single alerting system, adding Alert Beacons (wall-mounted devices with screens that display custom messages, flash strobes and generate sound) and mobile apps to build a way to target any or all of the university's inhabitants with situation-specific messaging.

Alertus also offers several models of panic button that can be mounted beside a Beacon, under a desk, or on a tabletop (which could have summoned help during recent school shootings in the US), and its ThreatWatcher component monitors emergency alert systems' feeds (for example, tornado warning systems), and triggers when a warning is issued.

In an interesting twist, Fletcher said that the mapping and pop-ups are the result of a handshake agreement between Avaya, who owns the intellectual property, and Conveyant, who developed and markets it. The two companies got tired of waiting for "someone" to provide the crucial functionality for emergency responders, and decided to do it themselves. The technology was then presented to the FCC in 2012 with the sole purpose of establishing prior art so no one else could try to patent it because, he said, it needs to be freely available to all emergency responders.

"There's not a lot of money in public safety," he noted. "But there's lots of goodwill."

There are still challenges, despite the technological advances. Today, Fletcher said, we're facing the same issues with social media that cell phone users faced in 1985: their calls were refused because call centres couldn't find their location. During last year's hurricanes, Houston police reportedly said that, although they had Internet connectivity and could access Facebook and Twitter and other social media, they couldn't respond to requests for help because the phone lines were down. After a citizen revolt, Fletcher said, they changed their message to say they didn't have the technology in place, but were working on it.

And that is how it probably will be with any new technology. But we have prioritize enabling emergency response or we'll repeat the cycle we saw with VoIP and cellular: people will have to die to prompt movement.

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