Next Generation 911: Taming the Hydra 160 characters at a time.

The 911 system of the future has some challenges ahead of it, in a similar fashion to the challenges of the Emergency Broadcasting System trying to consolidate into CMAS, which I previously discussed.  Rather than trying to disseminate information, 911 is trying to collect intelligence to efficiently dispatch resources.  In our digitally connected world, with fairly ubiquitous technologies like email, texting and internet telephony (VoIP, or Voice of Internet Protocol), the POTS (Plain Old Telephone System) 911 is really beginning to show its age.

But while all these technologies are proven communications tools, integrating them into the 911 call center process could be tricky.  A few good points brought up in Mark Fletcher’s blog entry here is that texting to 911 is probably not going to be an option.  For one thing, how do you know where to send a text based on where you are?  And as the operator, how do you interpret the 160 character message (which doesn’t seem to have the ability to send geolocation information)?  I can’t see texting as being a very efficient method of communication under these situations anyway, since it’s really a series of awkward one-way messages, and it seems like more of a technology of last resort.

Additionally, Fletcher mentions that the current U.S. 911 technology for the hearing impaired, the TTY/TDD system, does not always work well, yet that is a fairly mature technology compared to anything that may be in the pipeline for texting, and is already required by law.  It’s one of many reasons why dispatching police cars to the origins of a silent call can be a good policy.  But we already live in a world where we can receive texts from numerous sources that can’t be easily validated; how will we generate similar policies for texting? In my experience, complexity is rarely welcome in a system that needs to be failsafe and foolproof, and in an environment with limited resources, it may become necessary to focus on a few solutions, make them as bulletproof as possible, and then communicate the hell out those solutions so people will use them properly when the time comes.


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