9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Dropped! Wireless 911 Calls & You

Question and answer segment taken from Radiohead in Public Safety Communications Magazine, February 2009

Dear Radiohead,
Lately, I've been hearing a lot about wireless phone calls hanging up on 911. We've been discussing this problem on my shift, and no one seems to know the best thing to do. On one hand, the chances of us being able to track down the caller's exact location are next to nothing. On the other hand, if we don't attempt to call the person back and something goes wrong, then we look like uncaring idiots who won't take the time to dial a few numbers to check on someone who needs our help. What should a telecommunicator do in this situation?
Confused in Wisconsin

Dear Confused,
I could answer your question pretty quickly, but what fun would that be? A quick review of how this problem was creataed is in order.

In the good ol' days, when someone called for help, we got nada, zip, zero information about their location or even the phone number the call originated from. Then, after 911 was installed, we thought we were really advanced just because we could see the telephone number. But the information we received in 911's early days wasn't even as advanced as the caller ID system must of us have in our homes today. We didn't even get a name, just a phone number.

Then, Enhanced 911 (E911) was installed. Angels sang and fireworks erupted when telecommunicators realized that not only could we see the subscriber's telephone number, but we also to the person's name and (ta da!) address.

Everything was chugging along just peachy until someone got the idea that it would be great if people could be in constant communication. So someone invented a mobile phone so small it didn't require a hand truck to carry around. I remember the first time I heard about wireless. I thought the people were in desperate need of a new days in a nice padded cell. After all, who would carry a telephone around with them 24/7?

As the early 1990s dawned, leaders in the 911 industry started spreading the word like a battalion of modern day Paul Reveres, "Wireless is coming! Wireless is coming!" They told us that this new technology was going to turn 911 on its ear. They used terms like PCS (personal communications systems) and PCD (personal communications devices), and talked about portable phones that didn't resemble the 20", 10-lb. car phones seen on such cheesy television shows as Kojak and Cannon. These visionaries explained that the proliferation of these menacing little devices would mean a return to the good ol' days when a caller would scream for help, get out just enough information to confirm there was an emergency and then get cut off or hang up before the calltaker could find out where to send help.

As you know, those early warnings came true. And people who swore they would never want to be that available now carry devices that not only allow them to make telephone calls, but also to send e-mail, receive text messages and even watch TV. More and more Amercians are trading their old-fashioned landline telephones for wireless.

Receiving a 911 hang-up from one of these little buggers is a pain, plain and simple. The phone rings, the ANI/ALI display shows the location of a cell tower and the call goes dead. That brings us to the original question: Should telecommunicators call back, or just let it go?

As our country becomes more and more mobile, the need for a common sense approach to dropped wireless 911 calls has become more urgent than ever. Unfortunately, as I hope you're already aware, common sense isn't so common -- not even in comm centers.

The best answer: A look at comm center standards, including NENA Standard 56-001, revised Nov. 18, 2004, indicates that one attempt to call back an abandoned wireless 911 call is appropriate unless there's audible evidence of an emergent situation. If a wireless call is still open but silent, calltakers must challenge the call with TTY/TDD to ensure the caller isn't using a TTY to contact 911. If any evidence of an emergency exists, the calltaker must make every effort to contact the caller to determine a location of the incident and the nature of the call.

Your agency should have a policy in place that spells out -- in clear, unambiguous language -- the steps a calltaker should take to get the information needed to send a response to the caller.

After wireless, the next thing they throw at our industry will probably be video telephones. That development will really change the way 911 personnel do things. No more going to work in P.J.s or making weird, sarcastic faces at the telephone when the caller says something particularly eccentric or totally insane.

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