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From the Chair: Is 9-1-1 Really a System?

Author: Paul D. Bagley

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-09-09
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Since beginning this biweekly experiment in terror known as being a columnist, I have had the pleasure of gaining access to national – no, international – online discussions that have traversed a wide range of topics.  I truly enjoy the dialogue.  One subject sparking great recent debate is the concern over using 9-1-1 as a conduit for all calls to various emergency service agencies.  Apparently there are many jurisdictions throughout the country that find it more efficient and effective to route all of their calls – including routine business calls – through a 9-1-1 PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point) rather than having them broken out individually to separate ten-digit published or non-published lines.  While the great minds of management crunch their numbers and spin their webs, let’s take a look at this from a dispatcher’s point of view.

From the outset we need to understand that not every PSAP and/or dispatch center in the United States is set up, equipped, or staffed to a universal standard.  Quite the contrary!  There is no single model for how the functions of call-taking and dispatching are to be implemented other than that decade-old illusive standard of providing “interoperability.”  While President Bush post-9/11 was quick to enact standards of communicating through interoperable means that gave birth to the Incident Command System (ICS), no such standard was enacted concerning hardware, software, training or operational protocol standards.  Oh sure, there are standards and initiatives from a host of sources out there, but they only suggest, not mandate.  In one sense this is a good thing; home rule has long been a rallying point for many, and allowing local governance over emergency communications eliminates the possibility of micromanagement by nameless, faceless federalists.  On the other hand, the lack of such mandates means there is room for giant holes in the fabric.

While Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1) promises to overcome most of the technical obstacles that stand in the way of effective emergency communications, it is not some universal antidote that will instantly solve all operational shortcomings.  Once again, this will be left to local control.  In the case of one 9-1-1 PSAP - the country’s largest, in fact: New York City’s Public Safety Answering Center – this has already resulted in a calamity so monumental in scale that it is being touted even by members of that system as rivaling the disaster on 9-11-2001.  From conceptual flaws to inadequate design, the current city administration’s implementation of Emergency Communications Transformation Program (ECTP) is a $2.4 Billion system that was $700 million over budget, years behind schedule and, worst of all, doesn’t work as advertised.*  While the taxpayers are ultimately the losers in these cases, those who work in the PSAPs and dispatch centers are left with trying to pick up the pieces.  Talk about adding stress in the workplace!

The world’s oldest three-digit emergency telephone system was introduced in England in 1937 with the implementation of the 9-9-9 emergency call line.  That sequence of numbers was selected based upon the old rotary dial telephones and allowed callers to locate one numeral up from zero and then rotate the dial three times; this was designed to help the blind and those whose sight was obscured by smoke. 

The United States didn’t adopt a nationwide standard until 1967, and 9-1-1 was chosen primarily because it didn’t conflict with existing area codes or line prefixes already in use here in the states and in Canada.  Congress was adamant about one thing though; this new universal number was to be reserved exclusively for the acquisition of services in emergencies.  And this brings us back to the discussion about using 9-1-1 for non-emergency traffic.  Could using 9-1-1 lines for non-emergencies constitute a violation of that federal law?  

For four and half decades, 9-1-1 has been drilled into the American public’s mind as being reserved only for emergencies.  With half the PSAPs and dispatch centers in the US strictly holding to that definition and the other half accepting any kind of call through those lines, we’d be creating a very confused public, as if they’re weren’t already that way.  For that matter, it would be impossible for jurisdictions that mandate a response by some emergency service on every 9-1-1 call to send a police officer to the home or office of someone who called merely to get a copy of a police report or to inquire if school had been cancelled due to weather.  Using 9-1-1 as an initial sieve through which all calls must pass is tantamount to using nuclear weapons to kill mosquitoes; it will certainly do the job, but at what cost?

One of the dilemmas facing our industry in establishing standards is identifying need.  Before we can say what the system will eventually look like, we must first decide exactly what we want it to do.  With the ever-changing and expanding technologies available for communicating, it won’t be long before interactive implants are a reality and acquiring GPS will actually be of the individual, not just their cell phone.  RFID (radio frequency identification) is already widely used for tracking package delivery; is it such a giant leap to envision this technology being employed to track people?  Since technology is, at best, a fast moving target, any system that is to be implemented needs to be elastic enough to accommodate things that have yet to be envisioned or invented.  In some ways, the construction of a system isn’t unlike the development of our Interstate highway system.  We established a minimum standard of two travel lanes in each direction that were divided by a common barrier or medium, and where access would be limited to entry and exit at specific interchanges.  Limiting the use of 9-1-1 to emergency-only calls is no different than having to drive on the Interstate via the on-ramp.  It’s simple.  It’s orderly.  Most of all, it’s a standard that was previously established through Congressional decree and one that most Americans find not only easy to live with, but comforting in their time of need.  Those who call 9-1-1 frivolously can be dealt with individually and harshly, as they should be.

One of the up sides to routing all calls to a PSAP though 9-1-1 lines is that it gets operators putting every call received into the computer aided dispatch (CAD).  The ANI/ALI (automatic number identification/automatic location identification) dump automatically populates the location and calling number fields, and the call-takers only need to verify the information quickly in order to get things moving along.  For non-emergency calls this is a handy feature because it helps establish and maintain the database for future reference and eliminates a lot of the anonymous calls that so often crop up in crime situations.  But this then begs the question: can’t the ANI/ALI data be acquired on any incoming line?  Does current technology limit only 9-1-1 lines to this ability? 

The answer is, of course, no.  Caller ID has been around a long time and it is readily available at the receiving end of both hardline and cellular phones.  Since almost all telephone systems today are software-driven as opposed to the archaic electromechanical switching method previously used, it is not a difficult task to have all calls received at a PSAP or dispatch center to be accompanied by the necessary data required for CAD entry.  The next step is to mandate that a call-for-service be initiated in that CAD by the dispatcher for every call – a prudent method of recording activity and collecting data for a variety of reasons.  One such reason is justification of manpower – the more calls fielded, the more personnel are needed in The Chairs.  The various emergency service agencies we dispatch certainly rely upon this accounting method for justifying their annual budgets, as do we.

Certainly ease of use is among the most alluring arguments for handling non-emergency calls through 9-1-1.  The public doesn’t have to remember anything, look up numbers in a directory, or call directory assistance to find out the business number of the local police or fire department.  But the fact remains that using a standard emergency number like 9-1-1 for anything less than a bonafide emergency has the undesirable consequence of diluting the value of the entire 9-1-1 system nationwide.  Those jurisdictions that engage in this practice are compromising the jurisdictions that don’t, and this lack of consistency jeopardizes the trust that has been placed in our hands by the public.  The people expect us to be there in their hour of need, and with the limited resources in equipment and personnel allocated in most places for emergency communications, answering routine calls on 9-1-1 lines keeps those lines and that staff tied up.  This factor alone constitutes jeopardy.  Dispatchers are unable to handle an emergency call in a timely fashion because they are busy handling something less important but just as time-consuming.

Those who advocate for national standardization for training, operational protocols and procedures, and certification for emergency telecommunicators also need to deal with this problem.  We either have a nationwide emergency call system or we don’t, and given that some jurisdictions have already made their 9-1-1 lines all things to all people it’s pretty clear that a comprehensive “system” no longer exists. 

Truly the biggest impetus for handling routine calls on 9-1-1 lines is cost.  Jurisdictions engaging in this practice are truly the embodiment of the old saying, “penny wise and pound foolish.”  Even with 9-1-1 lines handling every call, there is a limit to the number of lines available.  If all those lines are tied up on routine non-emergency calls, where do those with true emergencies call for instant assistance?  Imagine another 9/11-scale disaster in such a place at a time when the lines are already jammed with business calls.  Besides, if a jurisdiction is so cheap that it can’t afford regular business lines, then the place would probably find it more economical chopping liability insurance premiums instead of phone bills.

If the Chief of the agency can’t establish and maintain protocols where call-takers and dispatchers properly log all pertinent data from incoming non-emergency lines, then that Chief needs to consider immediate and permanent retirement.  The capture of data is a poor excuse for adulterating our nationwide 9-1-1 system.  Will it cost more?  Certainly it will.  But what else is new?  Priced a fire engine lately?  How about a fully-equipped police cruiser or ambulance?  Over the past fifty years, as technology expanded, so too did the public’s demand for the use of it.  Emergency telecommunications is a prime example of both the expansion of technology and public demand.  And one thing the public must accept is that employment of new technology to meet that increased demand requires expenditure.  A substantial portion of the Chief’s job is to convey to the public that if it’s not willing to foot the bill for this in dollars and cents, then it may well have to pay for it in a more costly way.

At the very moment in history when our profession should be united in every way, we have maverick agencies that are redefining our industry to meet their own selfish needs.  Maybe their leadership has no idea how to properly develop a modern emergency telecommunications center or PSAP.  Maybe they’re caught in the economic quagmire that was brought on by the recession that began in 2008.  Regardless of cause or the logic(or illogic) involved, the Next Generation 9-1-1 system is only going to be more sophisticated than the current one, and it will only be a national standard if everyone adheres to it.  Those who sit in The Chair understand this.  The question is, do those in charge?

Paul D. Bagley is a published author of both fiction and non-fiction books, a retired police officer and emergency dispatcher.  He is the past president of New Hampshire Emergency Dispatchers Association, and he is editor and publisher of the association’s monthly newsletter, “The NHEDA Broadcaster.”

"From the Chair" is produced for 9-1-1 Magazine by 911Lifeline, a national 501(c)(3) membership association providing services for 9-1-1 telecommunicators, assistance to the media, and public education programs.  For more information visit

* For more details, see:
CBS News: Problems in NYC 911 System (2012)



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