As 9/11 approaches, we tend to think about, rightly so, the first responders who risked their lives, and in some cases lost their lives, rescuing people from the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on that fateful day when airplanes became missiles and our national security was shattered.

But 911 is not only a date. The numbers represent our emergency management system — a system that today is in urgent need of assistance. New information suggests that America's emergency response system for medical or fire or police rescue response is under enormous stress — almost to the breaking point.

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In San Francisco, a 2014 city controller report found that the number of calls to police, fire and medical personnel has risen sharply in recent years — up 22 percent between 2010 and 2013. The report found, however, that emergency centers only answer an average of 80 percent of 911 calls within 10 seconds — below national standards.

In Minneapolis, a police report finds that it took emergency dispatchers and police officers a full minute longer on average last year to respond to top priority 911 calls than earlier years — the first significant rise in response time in five years. Many blame the shortage of available officers to take calls.

In Boston, which suffered through the Boston Marathon terrorist event, the emergency management system is getting its first major overhaul in 20 years to shorten response times by better mapping Internet calls and text messages. Wireless devices — nationwide — don't always give emergency dispatchers an accurate geo-location. With so many households abandoning hard lines, the 911 system faces the challenge of staying ahead of technology.

Thanks to recent research and good investigative reporting, we are learning more about what causes slow response times to 911 calls in the U.S. In some states, the problems relate to aging infrastructure, staff shortages at emergency call facilities, and a lack of ambulances and resources at a time when cellular technology and wireless access enable more people to make more calls. Often the emergency management system system is swamped — dealing with a mix of emergency and non-emergency calls, leading some states to use 311 for non-urgent needs.

Beyond resource problems, there are new culprits in the 911 equation. One is traffic. Urban sprawl has led to widespread gridlock on our nation's roads, causing delays for emergency vehicles responding to a crisis. A new series of reports by NBC News identifies traffic and congestion as among the biggest obstacles to emergency responders, leaving ambulance drivers and fire trucks unable to arrive in less than five minutes in situations where every second counts. To make matters worse, drivers often ignore wailing sirens and flashing lights. In some instances, drivers are busy texting or tweeting and fail to change lanes to allow emergency vehicles to pass.

Our national standards for evaluating emergency responses also need work. A recent 18-month investigation by USA TODAY found insufficient common data to evaluate and monitor emergency response times across the country. According to the investigation, more than 1,000 "saveable" lives are lost needlessly each year in our nation's biggest cities because of problems with our emergency medical systems, including basic knowledge and availability of defibrillators. But we don't have enough good data to compare and contrast local and state systems.

Emergency response time is an important indicator of the quality and health of a country's infrastructure and its ability to handle disasters. The United States should be a model for others on how best to save lives. We need more education in the public square that goes beyond simply teaching people to dial 911, such as how to streamline requests for help, identify locations, and discern differences between real emergencies and non-emergencies. And we need to think about transportation other than cars, better use of carpools, and taking, seriously, the sights and sounds of an emergency vehicle. Lastly, we need to stop talking and texting while driving and use that time to think about those emergency responders — those remarkable individuals who responded to the other 911 — and those who respond to our daily troubles.

Sonenshine is a former under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs and is currently a distinguished fellow at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.