Why smartphones struggle with 911

If apps can automatically detect when you are near a local restaurant, why can't a 911 app? The network is to blame.

Why smartphones struggle with 911

The 911 network is far behind current device technology. But NG911 is on the way.

When it comes to 911, a dichotomy of functionality seems to exist. We have apps to organize our lives, link us to friends and summon our favorite pizza delivery dude. Despite this, providing 911 centers anything more than very coarse location granularity remains a challenge.

Apps promoting personal safety do exist. They claim to provide access to 911 through virtual panic buttons. Many also notify friends and family, which oddly enough are often in no position to provide any help or assistance. “Oh my gosh! Fletch is in trouble in Cucamonga, California! Let’s do something! Wait, we’re in New Jersey and have no idea who to call in Cucamonga or what to tell them!”

+ Also on Network World: Enterprise 911 — Lost in translation +

So, what do they do? They call their local New Jersey 911 center, tying up call taker resources with situations not within their jurisdiction and where they have no ability to provide assistance. 

Personal safety apps that fall into this category concern me, as they tend to impart a false sense of security to users during what may be a life-threating situation when decision making may not be clear. While these panic button-style apps claim to increase personal safety, in reality, most are merely glorified 911 speed-dial applications doing nothing more than dialing 911. The apps connect you with a 911 center in the same manner as directly dialing 911.

In other cases, apps claim to do more, typically routing your call through various convoluted backend network services. These alternative networks often add minimal value, if any.

Location, location, location

The primary problem these apps are trying to resolve relates to the weakest link in the 911 emergency network today—location. The bulk of 911 calls—70 percent to 80 percent of them—originate from wireless devices, and significant technology challenges exist in delivering a position, with an acceptable degree of accuracy, to the person on the far end of the line that needs it: the 911 call taker.

Despite location-based apps from services such as Uber and Domino's ability to pinpoint location with astounding accuracy, 911 centers continue to struggle to determine where you are. That's because they cannot rely on an app, only on the carrier network's assumption of location.

Sadly, in many cases, accuracy is less than adequate, and more and more it becomes a matter of life and death. In the tragic case of Shanell Anderson, she knew where she had driven off the road into a retaining pond, right down to the cross street names and ZIP code. Still, the technology available was unable to locate her when her life depended on it. Notwithstanding that fact, and that her cell phone understood where she was, it was her proximity to a cell tower in the next county that caused her 911 call to misroute to an adjacent 911 center instead of the one servicing her.

Compounding the error, maps for nearby jurisdictions were not available to the center, making it impossible to locate Anderson, even though typing those street names into Google returns the very intersection of the tragedy. Regrettably, Anderson died that early winter morning before responders were able to locate her and pull her sinking car from the water.

Almost immediately after the accident, the smartphone developer community responded with a series of personal safety apps, all promising to address the location issues plaguing the public safety network. After all, if Foursquare can automatically detect when I am near a favorite local restaurant, the developer community could easily deliver a 911 app with the same precision and accuracy.

It's not the app; it's the network

When reading horrific stories like Anderson's, it is convenient and easy to place the blame on the 911 centers, or even the actions of an individual call taker. But in reality, the blame likely rests with the analog voice-only telephone network.

For me, the last 50 years have been filled with promises of the videophone being commonplace in our homes, replacing that harvest gold plastic box on the kitchen wall with its 30-foot coiled handset cord. Finally, a half a century later, I have my videophone. Wireless technology now connects me to the network at home and in most other places. In turn, I can call practically anyone around the globe and share data peer to peer. Still, while the originating endpoint devices have become incredibly smart, the intelligence embedded within has remained isolated, as the core analog network continues to be unchanged and unable to pass along this critical information.

The network ability to switch voice calls from point to point represents the highpoint of the capabilities offered, applying solely to audio communications. Because of this limitation, any data capability would exist only through a MODEM—an acronym for MODulator DEModulator—the function of converting data to audio and then back to data on the far end of a phone line. And herein lies the rub. The highest speeds attainable would be far too slow to be used for multimedia.

Fixing the problem

The bane of every commercial IT professional is network speed and connectivity. For the public IT community, the same is true and remains the challenge, precluding an app developer from providing a solution that has location-awareness functionality and multimedia for a personal safety app.

Unquestionably, apps can contribute relevant content, but without the appropriate network in place, there is no way to pass this information along. Additionally, having to use a specific app for access to 911 simply doesn’t make sense. There are far too many dependencies involved. Is the app loaded? Is the app connected? Was the app used to initiate the call? The ability for apps to integrate at the required level does not exist today. Until that happens, the app will always be an add-on, where for this purpose, it needs to be deeply integrated. 

For Next Generation 911 (NG911) to be a reality, public safety answering point (PSAP) improvements must be accompanied by accelerated initiatives for NG911 network deployments. Without an end-to-end solution, the current 911 infrastructure is remanded to its current state of stagnation, and the connectivity required to move forward will be missing, regardless of the advancements of apps or 911 center upgrades. I have said many times before, NG911 is a three-legged stool, and all three legs need to be there to stand it up.

This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.
Must read: Hidden Cause of Slow Internet and how to fix it
Notice to our Readers
We're now using social media to take your comments and feedback. Learn more about this here.