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Blogs / Information Technology in Local Government / Technology to Support Wireless 9-1-1 Calls Must Keep Evolving

Technology to Support Wireless 9-1-1 Calls Must Keep Evolving

In our last column we promised to take a look at the special challenge that 9-1-1 calls from wireless phones pose for public safety communications centers, or PSAPs.

When 9-1-1 service was phased in during the 1980s and early 1990s there were few wireless phones in use, and so communications centers were adequately served by Enhanced 9-1-1 service for what today are called landline phones. The old Enhanced 9-1-1 provided a display of the location of a call from a landline phone and also supported Voice over IP (VoIP) telephones such as those offered by cable television providers.

Except then cell phones or “wireless” phones came on the scene, and for a few years things went backwards—with wireless phones, there was no way to determine the location of the call other than to interrogate the caller. This problem was remedied by the introduction of “Wireless 9-1-1,” which provides the phone number and ideally also the location of calls from wireless phones.

Today about 70% of 9-1-1 calls come from wireless phones. So, in addition to continuing to have to support Enhanced 9-1-1 for landlines, communications centers now also need to support Wireless 9-1-1.

Wireless 9-1-1 has evolved through three phases.

Wireless 9-1-1


Most wireless calls should now be using the Phase 2 Wireless 9-1-1 technology, which provides the number of the wireless call plus the location of the caller expressed as latitude and longitude. The location is determined using either a calculation measured from cell tower locations or the global positioning system (GPS) ability on the caller’s phone.

But this is only possible if the PSAP has implemented the technology to support Phase 2. And now centers that already support Phase 2 must determine how they will begin to implement the next generation of 9-1-1 technology, called (appropriately) “Next-Generation 9-1-1,” or NG911. NG911 includes a number of new features, such as the ability to receive text messages to 9-1-1.

Part of the need for text messaging is to support the disabled and also those in some emergency situations such as domestic abuse in which a voice call may not be feasible. Back in 2009 Black Hawk County in Iowa was the first PSAP in the U.S. to gain the ability to receive 9-1-1 calls as text messages. A few more pioneering communications centers have recently opened up the ability to receive texts.

But all this is now starting to take off. The four major wireless providers (e.g., Verizon) have committed to support texting service by a deadline of May 15, 2014. But in order for a PSAP to be able to take texts their Wireless 9-1-1 phone technology provider must also be able to support this service, the PSAP must implement it, and then the PSAP must publicize this service to the public.

And now in February the FCC proposed new rules asking to increase the accuracy of locating 9-1-1 callers within buildings, including doing a better job of pinpointing what floor the caller is on.

So the list of the technology that communications centers must support continues to get longer, and the technologies continue to become more complex. Communications centers will constantly need to stay relatively current with these technologies. And as noted in previous columns, the pressure to stay current with these technologies is additional motivation for governments operating communications centers to consider moving to larger collaborative centers, so as to more easily manage all of this.

Has your center been able to keep current with Wireless 9-1-1? Will you be working to implement texting ability? Do you possibly question the cost/benefit of this? Have you had problems in implementing any of this technology? Please comment and let us know how you are progressing.