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What's the App For 9-1-1? How Third Party Software Compromises Emergency Reporting

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2016-08-21
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"Lacking a nationwide standard or official certification has not prevented developers from marketing 9-1-1 apps in the United States. Apps that hold themselves out as being ready to replace or substantially augment 9-1-1 present significant problems for PSAPs and put users at risk." - APCO White Paper, 2015

The question, “What’s the number for 9-1-1?” has been a running joke for many years. It even made a guest appearance on that barometer of American culture The Simpsons, and may possibly be based on a true incident. While not the most hysterical of premises, it is a far sight funnier than the results of unregulated development of 9-1-1 applications. Accompanying the increasing popularity of smartphones came the commensurate popularity of applications or “apps” that made them even smarter. From Angry Birds to navigation systems to reporting emergencies, a cornucopia of coding made its way into our handheld devices. Much of this programming is fun, helpful, or at least innocuous. But what happens when a variety of applications – some obviously designed without public safety input – promise to enhance your enhanced 9-1-1 experience? With so many from which to choose, what’s the app for 9-1-1?

In April 2015, the Association of Public-safety Communications Officials (APCO) published a White Paper titled The Status of 9-1-1 Apps.  Under the heading Misleading Claims and Dangerous Features it went on to say that, “Lacking a nationwide standard or official certification has not prevented developers from marketing 9-1-1 apps in the United States. Apps that hold themselves out as being ready to replace or substantially augment 9-1-1 present significant problems for PSAPs and put users at risk. APCO has become aware of more than 20 such apps.” It further cautioned against reliance on claims made by any application, such as, “the app is preferable to calling 9-1-1,” and “it sends your precise location to 9-1-1.”

Surprisingly, the Federal Communications Commission has been relatively laisse faire on the issue, especially in light of the historic precedents of protecting public access to first responders.   After all, it was the FCC that mandated support for uninitialized wireless handsets, so that every cell phone would be capable of calling 9-1-1. This followed years of some conventional carriers offering so-called “soft” dial tone, which allowed subscribers to dial both the emergency number and Telco business office on disconnected landlines.  This does not mean, however, that the Feds have been absent. In May of 2015, for example, they hosted a 9-1-1 Apps Workshop at which representatives of APCO, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), and key industry players offered information.  Some discussions centered on combatting known issues such as improving initial and interior accuracy of wireless calls, while others focused on the difference between commercial and public safety location technology, the inclusion of the Internet in solutions, development and testing standards, social media, and emergency notification.  Having viewed both the proceedings and the packaged presentations, I can vouch for the fact that a lot of knowledge was shared.  However, as a former Public Safety Answering Point manager, I can also say that this information provided little direct operational guidance and relief for those charged with dealing with emergencies.

Perhaps our immediate agenda should be to require national testing and certification for all 9-1-1 applications. After all, it is not uncommon for telephone carriers to require their own vetting of a product already certified by the original manufacturer. While sometimes frustrating, this double jeopardy system is extremely effective since it deeply exercises all hardware and software before placing it in mission critical situations.  Don’t our citizens deserve the same protections going forward?

Can we ethically, morally, or legally require that third party programs be used to access 9-1-1 without ensuring that they are automatically available to every carrier, every jurisdiction, and every possible calling device? 

 

What may prove more problematic is identifying and approving those applications which provide true benefit to the 9-1-1 caller. Obviously, involvement of knowledgeable and credible public safety professionals in the development process would lend credence. However, even more critical is the universal availability of the app. Can we ethically, morally, or legally require that third party programs be used to access 9-1-1 without ensuring that they are automatically available to every carrier, every jurisdiction, and every possible calling device? Clearly, no. Conversely, can we ensure that consumers do not “self-medicate” by installing an application that is unknown to us? Again, the answer is no.  The balance between rapid improvements and unimpeded access was summed up by Trey Forgety, NENA Director of Government Affairs, in his presentation to the FCC.  “How do we open-up 9-1-1 to rapid app advancements,” he asked, “while maintaining the universality required for success?”

A sampling of this challenge can be viewed by scanning the current horizon. There’s at least one value added provider that supplies personalized caller information.  While the PSAP typically pays for the service, citizens input their own data, which is presented to the telecommunicator at the time of a call. A variety of elements such as drug allergies, medical conditions, and the home address of cell phone callers can be programmed in, thereby allowing more insight than available through conventional ALI (Automatic Location Information). There are reportedly over 30,000,000 current users. While some in online forums have expressed concern over privacy issues – including one commenter who judged this to be just another part of the government plot to grab guns – the data is not transmitted until a 9-1-1 call is made. Although some programs raise red flags, this one seems to be working judging by the lack of negative comments I could find.

Another well-meaning but potentially egregious app automatically dials family and friends when you call 9-1-1. Although the thought is nice, the results deserve scrutiny. If you’re having an emergency, do you really want to deal with a dozen incoming calls, which is what you’ll likely get when everyone from your mom to your BFF hears you’ve got problems? But when they can’t get you, who do they call? You got it! They call 9-1-1. Where, even assuming they get the right 9-1-1, they will likely talk to someone who knows nothing about your emergency. And your inner circle won’t be able to help much, because they won’t even know why you (or your butt) dialed 9-1-1, where you were, or what you were calling about. Anyone else see a problem?

Through my research I also found an app that labels itself as “The next generation 9-1-1,” which is quite an accomplishment seeing as it doesn’t route your call via that network, nor deliver it to an actual 9-1-1 center. While it promises real time video monitoring and support for texting, your information is still going to have to be relayed to a PSAP by a private call center in order to get help, and in the current environment I’m assuming that your video is not one of the things being relayed.  Also touted is a timer for you to set when you are in suspicious surroundings, which will spawn an incident if you don’t check in by the expiry. Exactly what happens from there is not stated in the ad I saw.

I also found some apps targeted at students, the most common feature of which allowed you to maintain contact with a circle of friends while calling 9-1-1. The reoccurring cost was significantly higher than many state 9-1-1 monthly fees, and I was intrigued by one claim that “students can also capture and send photos to mobile contacts or authorities in non-threatening emergencies.” I am unsure of how these photos get to the authorities, and even less sure what constitutes a non-threatening emergency. After reading a number of descriptions of applications that are already out there, I became fervently prayerful that the developer’s ability to code was better than their grammar. My faith was further tested by features suggested by users, such as connecting 9-1-1 to more “easily accessible” buttons on smart devices, such as the volume control.  Seriously? Should silencing your phone result in an inadvertent call for help? I think not.

In the past, the network was only able to handle voice on a phone call, therefore emergency calling from apps was irrelevant. NG9-1-1 erases that restriction, and app developers need to both understand and honor some fundamental ‘rules of engagement’ for adaptive technologies.

 

Still and all, there is room for apps in our future. According to Mark J Fletcher ENP – chief architect of worldwide public safety solutions for Avaya, “Apps are a large conundrum for Emergency Services today. With the shift from fixed line to mobile devices, citizens now have a tool in their hands that contains an incredible amount of computing power. The common communications interface has become the ‘app’ and therefore needs to include the ability to summon emergency assistance. This brings the industry to the requirement to support emergency services, as well as app developers being responsible with capabilities advertised and invoked for emergency events that use these forms of communications enabled by apps.

Often, we have ignored emergency communications within apps, especially from the deaf, hard of hearing, deaf blind and speech disability community. This group of people has particularly been excluded from direct access to emergency services, or at least shielded from functionally equivalent capabilities as people who can hear and speak.

In the past, the network was only able to handle voice on a phone call, therefore emergency calling from apps was irrelevant. NG9-1-1 erases that restriction, and app developers need to both understand and honor some fundamental ‘rules of engagement’ for adaptive technologies. Many groups exist that are willing to support development communities, but do not have the manpower to go knocking door-to-door soliciting the needs of their community of users. These organizations rely on the corporate responsibility policies of companies wishing to contribute to police their own behavior and engage where relevant.”

As we move forward, it is likely that this engagement will become more frequent and more emergent in nature. When we search for viable solutions, who can we call for help? Quick! What’s the app for 9-1-1?

See Related story: What's the App For 9-1-1? How Third Party Software Compromises Emergency Reporting by Barry Furey

With more than 45 years’ experience in public safety, including managing large consolidated dispatch centers in three states, Barry Furey now serves as a trainer and consultant for the 9-1-1 and public safety communications community.  See www.barryfurey.com

 

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