The 911 emergency phone system is outdated. In 1874, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, allowing speech to be transmitted electronically over wires. His invention swept the world and homes and businesses everywhere installed telephones to communicate. If you wanted to speak to someone, you called their home or business and asked to speak to them. When the 911 emergency call system was invented in 1968, most homes had fixed-location, landline telephones. Using caller ID and a database of home addresses, it was easy and automatic for the 911 dispatcher to get the physical address of the caller. Times have changed. People are permanently disconnecting their home landline phones at an astonishing rate. The old telephony model of calling a place has been replaced by calling a specific person, wherever they are at the moment, on their mobile phone.
POTS goes up in smoke
Mobile phones are everywhere and landlines are dying. Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) is not only being disconnected by consumers – even phone companies like AT&T want to cut the cord. Less than 10 percent of the households in AT&T’s territory in Illinois have old-fashioned landlines. AT&T has petitioned the FCC to allow it to disconnect the 1.2 million landline phone customers it provides service for in the state, to help it move toward modern wireless telephony and Internet services. Phone companies wanting to exit the landline business is a growing national trend. AT&T has gotten similar legislation passed in 19 other states as well.
The FCC estimates that over 70 percent of calls to 911 are from cell phones and that number is rising quickly. Mobile phones don’t have a fixed location, they move about. This simple fact causes a major problem for the 911 system is that the CALLER ID can no longer automatically provide the location of the caller to the 911 operator. Knowing the location of a cell tower is not the same as knowing the location of a person in trouble.
To respond to an emergency, the police, fire or medics must know the physical address to go to. No address, no response. So it has become necessary for the 911 dispatcher to engage in questioning the caller to identify their location. This is by no means as easy as the old days, when the landline phone did not move and its location was perfectly known. While a dispatcher will ask location questions, often the person calling from a mobile phone may not even know where they are at the moment. They may be driving down a dark highway and see an accident. Or see a house on fire and not know even what town they are in.
The Solution: 911 must embrace smartphone technology
A multi-billion dollar, long time buildout is planned to modernize the 911 system. However, we should not need to wait! ELERTS mobile apps already can provide the location of the caller when a person presses ‘Call 911’ button in the app. Smartphones have excellent GPS location information which can be transmitted by mobile apps. Knowing the location of an emergency is critical to respond and render police, fire or medical services to those in peril.
Providing an easy way for citizens to contact emergency operators is crucial for public safety. We must adapt our emergency services to better interact with the mobile-phone-using public. The more eyes and ears reporting safety and security concerns, the better. So, while we have to wait for that multi-billion dollar 911 infrastructure upgrade to come to fruition, we do have alternatives that work today. The next time you hear of a See Something Say Something app in your area, download it and help by being a part of creating a safer society.