A Distress Call to Rescue 9-1-1
By Nicole Correia, NYSAC Communication Coordinator
The nation's 9-1-1 systems have evolved technologically since the first emergency call was made in the small Northern Alabama town of Haleyville in 1968.
The computer that guided the first moon landing was unveiled that year. Publicly available mobile phones were still 16 years away.
Times have changed. Nearly 50 years later, and at a time when the public expects service providers to be at the leading edge of technological advancements – or striving toward it – many of New York's county-based 9-1-1 systems, and the county officials responsible for maintaining them, are having difficulty keeping up with the cost and pace of progress in the important field of emergency response.
In response to this growing concern, NYSAC launched an initiative to help secure certainty in the funding stream and make emergency services more accessible to all New Yorkers and those who visit the state.
The “Rescuing 9-1-1” campaign seeks the involvement of NYSAC stakeholders, including county leaders, and eventually state's decision-makers in Albany.
“NYSAC and its members have identified some serious issues that are hampering the ability of 9-1-1 operations across the state to maintain their systems and apply the most up-to-date technology that best serves the public,” said NYSAC Executive Director Stephen J. Acquario. “This is now a priorityissue for us, and our members will play a big role in helping to Rescue 9-1-1 in New York State.”
At issue are the following:
ï® The state collects $1.20 surcharges on landline and contract cellphone plans, but not on pre-paid cellphones, resulting in lost revenue from roughly 30 percent of the cell phone market in the state.
ï® Under state authority, counties may also charge 30 or 35 cents per month on contract cell phone bills and 35 cents per month on landline phones. But there is no mechanism to charge pre-paid cell phone users.
ï® Landline telephones were once the main source of surcharge revenue, but fewer homes have them today, which also is resulting in decreased revenue.
ï® The state makes some of the funds it collects available to the counties in the form of competitive grants for system upgrades. Rescuing 9-1-1 seeks changes to the revenue-distribution method to help ensure a more reliable funding stream and to maintain system efficiency and integrity.
Today, counties face challenges with basic radio communication interoperability, and new technology upgrades are costly, complex and take a long time to implement. The state makes about $75 million available to counties in the form of competitive grants. They are capped at $2 million per year, per county. The Rescuing 9-1-1 effort will explore the adequacy of the current funding policy.
The Cell Phone/Smartphone Challenge
The rise of cell phone and smartphone use has made it much easier for people to reach a 9-1-1 operator. At any ccident scene, operators will routinely receive multiple calls from witnesses, all pertaining to the same incident.
Last year in Rensselaer County, for instance, the 9-1-1 call center received 600,000 calls on 150,000 incidences. By comparison, Dutchess County's call center received nearly 235,000 calls on nearly 121,000 incidences. Collectively, dispatchers across the state receive 20 million calls per year.
However, the Rescue 9-1-1 initiative seeks to introduce the technology to better pinpoint the specific location of a person in need if that person uses a cell phone to dial 9-1-1. Most systems do not have this functionality today.
The technology to perform this function does, in fact, exist; ride services such as Uber, for example, has an app that allows smartphone users to call for a ride. Uber uses GPS to locate the customer, who, in turn, can see how far away the driver is by viewing the phone app. Most major fooddelivery services are creating apps that allow users to “tap and order” and track the location of their order as it's on the way.
The state's county-based 9-1-1 centers are heading in that direction.
“That is one of things we hope to address through the Rescuing 9-1-1 effort. Right now 9-1-1 operators can know fairly quickly which cell tower a caller is closest to, or how close someone is to their individual service provider's tower,” said Rensselaer County Executive Kathy Jimino. “But time is wasted in cases where the caller is unable to verbally provide a
specific location to the operator. Minutes matter to first responders; they matter even more to someone in distress.”
The Future of 9-1-1
The Federal Communications Commission will require states to adopt “Next Generation 911(NG911) – an “evolving system of hardware, software, standards, policy and training” that will equip 9-1-1 systems with the tools to seamlessly adapt to future technologies, according to the FCC. It is designed so the public can text to 9-1-1, share video, and for the
operators to “auto-locate” victims through GPS technology. According to the FCC, built-in redundancies would allow G911 to function during times of call overload, natural disasters and power outages.
“Rescuing 9-1-1 is a campaign to identify the financial problems to improve the process by which 9-1-1 county-based systems keep up with the rapid changes in technology and deliver the best, most cost-effective service that the public expects and deserves,” said William E. Cherry, NYSAC President. “We, as an association, have an obligation to identify areas where we can improve the system. That is the purpose of Rescuing 9-1-1.”
With your help, at the grass roots, we can amplify our voices for those New Yorkers who are calling out for help.