9/11 Anniversary: Standard for Internet-based emergency calls nears completion

IETF protocol supports multimedia communications; works over smartphones, laptops, TVs

The Internet engineering community is close to solving the thorny technical problem of identifying and routing emergency calls over the Internet similar to how they are handled over the regular telephone system.

After five years of development, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is putting the finishing touches on a standard and an overall architecture that will support Internet-based emergency calling.

BACKGROUND: Ten years after 9/11: Public safety network may be near

This is an important development given the explosive growth of Internet calling. A June survey by Pew Research Center indicated that nearly a quarter of U.S. Internet users -- 24% -- have placed calls online, and on any given day, 5% of Internet users go online to place calls. However, today's VoIP services don't always send the physical location and telephone number of the caller when they connect them to emergency call centers.

The new IETF standard fixes this problem by determining the physical location of a device that is making an emergency call over the Internet and uses that information to route the call to the appropriate emergency call center.

Called Location to Service Translation (LoST), the standard was designed for use with any nation's emergency calling system, such as 9-1-1 in the United States, 9-9-9 in the United Kingdom or 1-1-2 in the European Union. LoST was created by the IETF's Emergency Context Resolution with Internet Technologies (ECRIT) working group.

The LoST standard and related documents will undergo interoperability testing in November through the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), which oversees emergency calling in the United States.

"There's been a fair amount of interest in LoST, especially in the United States," says Richard Barnes, a co-chairman of the ECRIT working group and a computer scientist with BBN Technologies. "LoST is written into NENA's standards for next-generation 9-1-1 services."

One advantage of LoST is that it will support multimedia communications, including voice, text and video. It also will work with any device connected to the Internet.

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"LoST gives 9-1-1 the scope of the Internet and the flexibility of the Internet," Barnes says. "It's not just the phone in my pocket that talks to the cellular network. It also supports my Internet-connected TV, which goes back to a fiber optic network with no landline. It supports someone who is using Wi-Fi on a 4G bridge. It allows things like laptops to make emergency calls. It greatly expands access to 9-1-1 capabilities to lots of new devices and new technologies."

LoST will provide emergency call centers with more flexibility to route calls dynamically to the nearest available operator than exists in today's emergency response systems. Overall, LoST is expected to increase the reliability and capacity of emergency call centers, which are called Public Safety Access Points (PSAPs) in the U.S.

"With Hurricane Rita [in 2005], there were three PSAPs that actually closed. We evacuated them," says Marc Linsner, co-chairman of the ECRIT working group and an engineer with Cisco. "With an Internet-based system, you can unplug a PSAP and plug it in 100 miles away. ... Today, it's not easy to move those applications to neighboring PSAPs."

Linsner says the ECRIT working group is making final tweaks on the LoST standard and related documents, which are expected to be complete by the end of the year.

The next step will be implementation of LoST, which Barnes says could happen quickly on the client side. Barnes has created a prototype application for Android devices that uses ECRIT-developed standards. The application discovers local emergency resources, whether it's 9-1-1 or 1-1-2, recognizes when the user dials an emergency call and presents IP contact information. The application can be seen here.

While ECRIT handles citizen-to-authority emergency communications, a new IETF working group is handling the opposite problem: when government authorities want to blast out emergency communications to citizens in a particular region.

The IETF's new Authority-to-Citizen Alert (ATOCA) working group is working on a standard mechanism for government agencies to send out text-based warnings to cellphone users in a particular geographic area about a pending disaster such as a tornado. These warnings would be similar to those provided on radio and television networks.

The ATOCA working group was chartered in 2010 and is defining the requirements for a standard way to send emergency alerts. Today, various countries including China and Japan have their own systems for broadcasting emergency alerts for earthquakes or other disasters.

"There are two many technical challenges that we need to address, that is scalability and security," says Martin Thomson, co-chairman of ATOCA and an engineer with CommScope. "Scalability is an issue if you're looking to warn millions of people about a hurricane or tsunami. Those network messages can cause a lot of congestion in the network. ... Security is a real concern because you don't want anyone to be able to send these messages out. You're talking about an amplification system that causes panic and congestion. So we're looking at making sure only people authorized to send out messages can do so."

Thomson estimates it will take the ATOCA working group two years to develop a proposed standard for sending emergency text messages across the Internet.

"I think it could be useful for weather-related incidents, dangers to life or property, or anything else that can be acted upon," Thomson says. "Weather alerts are probably the easiest ones to identify with. The alert would say: There are mudslides. Get out of town."

There's also potential for private ATOCA-based systems to be developed for schools or hospital campuses. "It's reasonable that an ATOCA system could have helped out in the Norwegian [gunman] incident, "he adds.

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