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9-1-1 For Sale: The Politics of the Public/Private Partnership

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-08-03
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It wasn’t really that long ago that 9-1-1 was pretty simple. Phones were things connected by wires, we knew where all the callers were, and we had to deal with a handful of local and national alarm companies. Maybe, if we dispatched for a fire department, the Gamewell Box Alarm system was connected directly to the Public Safety Answering Point, but past that, the number of ways that we received a “call” were slim, and the information associated with these calls was even slimmer.

Enter wireless, and we lost track of our callers, and VoIP, where callers sometimes lost track of us by programming in erroneous home addresses or dialing what they believed to be emergency numbers that rang instead on a detective’s vacant desk. The “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up,” line of personal alarms came along, and folks like OnStar and ATX started selling what I like to call concierge services that also included the reporting of emergencies. Overall, we’ve learned to deal, or at least make do with the technology, and the private firms seemed to at least offer some benefit to a unique niche in our population that we were perhaps under serving.

Recently, however, there seems to be a new trend toward selling services with a broader appeal. But as appealing as they may seem to the public to whom they are marketed, some are raising questions within the 9-1-1 community. One such firm falls under the category of personal alarm services, and has John Walsh as their spokesperson. In one of their ads, featuring an older man, visibly out of sorts from riding a bike (watch it here), his voice-over proclaims, “It can happen in an instant. Your dad doesn’t feel right. He’s not sure he should call 9-1-1.” While we’re all grateful for anything that reduces unwarranted calls, if I were lucky enough to still have my dad here, and he looked like the guy on TV, I can darn sure tell you what number he’d be calling. Now, this isn’t to say that this company and the like provide no benefits under the right circumstances. I’m sure they do. But, with all the emphasis placed by the EMS community on prompt reporting of cardio-vascular emergencies, is this scenario really a good time to question the need to call? It seems to me the example given here is not the type of incident that burdens our delivery system, and it’s a little frustrating that people who complain about a seventy-cent surcharge to fund their local 9-1-1 seem to find plenty of money to spend on marketed services. Maybe we need a celebrity spokesperson, too?

Yet another firm spawned action by announcing a service that would institute notifications in case of emergency based upon data supplied by the profit making venture. Subscribers would be identified by a decal on their car or information on their person. Supposedly, letters were being sent to all PSAPs so that they could register as part of the program, and fifty-cents per subscriber per month would be “donated” to the appropriate 9-1-1 center. Are you with me so far?

After some on-line discussions, a number of issues were raised. These resulted in a message sent from Shelly Conner, Director of Agency Relations to NENA state presidents to share with their constituents. This read, in part: “Some centers did share some initial concerns related to: 

  • The rollout timeframe 
  • A perception that 911EA was a requirement and not a tool being offered to your centers 
  • How a subscribers information is accessed 
  • How the family notification process works 
  • Liability related to the revenue source provided by 911EA 
  • What exactly a dispatcher/first responder would be expected to do and the time involved 
  • A perception that 911EA would be used on every 9-1-1 call 

I believe we have been able address these questions and offer a better understanding of what 911EA is and is not through direct communication with those centers with concerns and educational webinars. While our website www.911ea.net is still under development, the activation portal is available for those centers wishing to activate their account. We hope to have the training videos and canned webinars available in the coming weeks so please continue to check back to the website. 

We fully acknowledge that the first mailing went out prematurely with the website having to be updated and the activation date being pushed back. As a startup company these are some of the growing pains we're experiencing. We are in the early stages and will not launch publicly until we have the majority of the nation's 911 centers and hospital ER's comfortable with this tool. We are open to any and all feedback and welcome it as we want this to be a tool that helps our communities, saves lives and makes information more easily accessible to improve the outcome of emergency situations. Thus far the dialogues we are having with many of your centers across the country has provided us with valuable insight in improving 911EA.” 

Obviously, the provision of additional information to first responders can be of benefit, and this company is not the only one promoting similar ideas. However, subtleties in the way that technology is developed, presented, and perceived will always play a large role in its acceptance. And as we move boldly into the world of “Next Generation”, we need to be prepared to make even more evaluations. Communicating with smart devices means the development and use of applications, and likely at least some of these will involve 9-1-1. There’s already buzz about 9-1-1 texting aps, and aps that call your friends when you call 9-1-1. That’s all well and good if everyone uses the same text ap, but what about phones that don’t have it installed? That discussion makes the issue of non-initialized handsets look simple. And when your friends get notified that you called 9-1-1, who do they call? When you’re 500 miles away on vacation and report a traffic accident not involving you, they’re still going to get alerted, aren’t they? If it’s two AM, I’m sure they’ll be happy to know you’re OK. But, probably, they’ll call their local 9-1-1 center that won’t have a clue what they’re talking about. Ah, the price of progress.

Strangely enough, the potential of Next Generation 9-1-1 may actually reduce or eliminate some of the third party services that have bloomed in the gap.  The transition from a tabular to a geo-spatial MSAG (Master Street Address Guide) and the creation of a high-speed digital network will allow for the delivery of significantly more information when coupled with smart telephones, Personal Digital Assistants, and the like.  Intelligent Traffic Systems that support crash notifications will ride the public sector fiber to provide much of what is now privately managed. And under NENA’s own mantra of service to “any device”, medical pendants may well get up and call 9-1-1 directly; avoiding the middle man completely.

Until that happens, 9-1-1 is for sale. It’s up to us to contain the cost; both in terms of dollars – and sense.

Our PSAP Management columnist Barry Furey has been involved in public safety for more than 40 years, having managed 9-1-1 centers in four states. A life member of APCO International, he is the current director of the Raleigh-Wake County (NC) Emergency Communications Center.  As an independent columnist for 9-1-1 magazine, Barry’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his public safety employer.

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