911 in the digital age: Seconds matter, as do emergency system upgrades

911 in the digital age: Seconds matter, as do emergency system upgrades
© Getty Images


In the city of Haleyville, Alabama, on Feb. 16, 1968, state House Speaker Rankin Fite made the nation’s first 911 call, answered by Congressman Tom Bevill on a red telephone. Ahead of communities around the country, Haleyville partnered with its local telephone company to install the necessary equipment and establish a central point to receive calls and dispatch emergency responders. Since then, 911 has become the most important number we know. When life throws tragedies our way, we rely upon this nationally planned but locally implemented system and the professionals who direct lifesaving response.

It’s fitting on this 50th anniversary that we honor the men and women who, every few minutes, deal with emergencies that most of us hope we will never encounter.

911 is made possible by technology, policy, funding and people. It’s one of the best examples of a public-private partnership, sustained in a manner that recognizes the vast differences in public safety needs and resources across jurisdictions.


But it’s a complex governance landscape, and understanding who pays for what was essential to the establishment of 911 — and it remains key to understanding how to bring the various 911 systems across the country into compliance with our digital, internet-based communications reality.

In the 1950s, a call for help meant knowing the numbers for the police or fire department in your community. That served the nation well for many years. After World War II, as President Eisenhower made interstate highways a priority, it became increasingly clear that emergencies didn’t always fall neatly into a geographic location for which we had the first-responder numbers memorized. Calls for help made to untrained commercial company telephone operators often resulted in confusion and delayed response.  

An easily recognized single number that worked across the country became an imperative for an increasingly mobile nation. Great Britain in 1937 recognized this and established 999 as its universal emergency number (eventually adding 112 to ensure interoperability with all of Europe). Twenty years later, in 1957, the International Association of Fire Chiefs proposed a single universal emergency number for the United States.

Even though most people recognized its value, the concept had detractors. Some thought status quo was good enough; some couldn’t imagine a time in which you’d spend significant periods away from home. Some phone companies felt the cost of adjusting operations just wasn’t worth the effort, and some felt that decisions regarding police and fire were inherently local and that choosing a number for emergencies was no different.

Nevertheless, President Johnson established a commission to study the concept and in 1968 the Federal Communications Commission, communities and telephone service providers set in motion rules governing the implementation of 911.

In 1987, President Reagan declared Sept. 11 as National Emergency Number Day, recognizing that first call in Haleyville — but pointing out that only 50 percent of the country had yet implemented 911. Congress had decided to not require states and communities to implement 911, leading to the patchwork of capabilities across the country that continues today.

It wasn’t until passage of the Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act in 1999 that Congress made 911 “the law of the land.” With the statute and renewed government commitment, 99 percent of America today enjoys at least basic 911 service. Yet, even though we are well into the digital age, most communities have yet to fund the transition of their 911 systems to internet-based systems from those designed in a copper and analog era.

Planning for the next generation of 911 started in 2000. Palm Beach, Florida, installed a proof-of-concept emergency services internet-protocol network (ESInet), using electronic mapping tools and digital communications to greatly enhance call-taking, analysis and dispatch. The state of Washington completed the first statewide next-generation 911 network in 2012.

Today, only 38 states and the District of Columbia have NG911 projects in some stage of planning or implementation. We’re on a trajectory that could result in significant parts of the country continuing to operate 911 on legacy technology well past 2020. Twelve states and numerous communities in the other states, tribal areas, territories and federal lands do not have plans to upgrade their systems, despite congressional acts in 2008 and 2012 that made NG911 a critical national goal.

This has inherent inefficiencies and the increased risk of system failures. It also means —  more importantly — that you’ll need a scorecard as you travel across the country to determine which jurisdictions can receive a text to 911, where you can send an image or livestream the real-time situation and your location. Seconds matter in emergency response, and we are on our way to “have and have-not” areas of the country when it comes to timely, accurate emergency response.

This is even more important now that we have invested in FirstNET, the network that emergency responders use once dispatched. It will allow those headed to the scene to receive the additional situational awareness from internet-based capabilities. First responders who are given only relayed voice reports often have less information than a consumer with a smartphone at the scene or, worse, a bad actor wanting to exploit the information gap. This week’s Parkland, Florida, school shooting is yet one more tragic reminder that our 911 professionals, the “first” first responders, need NG911 to make smart, timely decisions.

As we celebrate 50 years of 911 in the United States, we should recommit ourselves to attaining the NG911 goals that Congress established years ago. Congress can do its part by passing the Next Generation 911 Act of 2017, which would create incentive for attaining universal NG911 capabilities by a certain date.

Finally, we should all take a moment this year to thank the men and women of 911 for their service. Theirs is a stressful job that lacks the regular citizen feedback and closure after incidents that other first responders often get. Let this be the year we put NG911 and our next generation 911 workforce on the path for nationwide success.

David G. Simpson, a retired rear admiral with the U.S. Navy, leads Pelorus Consulting Services, specializing in public safety, telecommunications and cyber security. He was chief of the Federal Communications Commission’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau (2013 to 2017); vice director of the Defense Information Systems Agency (2011 to 2013); and director of Communications and Information Services for U.S. Forces Iraq in Baghdad (2009 to 2010).