Cell Phones and 9-1-1: Image vs. Reality

“From the Desk of the Mayor”, Leetsdale Borough Newsletter, March 2013

Easter blessings to you.

I don’t often write in this forum about the particulars of my profession. Looking back, it’s been about a year since I explored the topic in depth.

Besides, I sometimes get the distinct feeling that most people, including those closest to me, have only a certain level of tolerance for the minutiae inherent in making a complex system function with grace and efficiency in the vast majority of circumstances. So when I’m not working, I try to think and write about other things that matter to me.

However, recent developments have me thinking about the potential consequences of communicating misleading, incomplete, or inaccurate information to citizens about this critical service, and especially how it works when using a cell/wireless/mobile phone.

It’s Only a Movie..Only a Movie…

With that in mind, a movie came out earlier this month that incorporates 9-1-1, cell phones, and dispatchers as the heart of the story. The Call stars Halle Berry as a 9-1-1 Telecommunicator forced to confront a critical, career-changing incident not once, but twice.

Too often I look at this type of entertainment and pick apart the differences between it and real-life circumstances. This tends to annoy those around me. Plus I can’t in all fairness say whether or not the movie is any good based on just the snippets and hype.

I watched the trailer a couple of times, and came up with the same general observations that come up when film and TV attempt to enter the 9-1-1 realm:

1. Those 9-1-1 operators that work in open space environments, with high ceilings, abundant natural light, and state-of-the-art, ergonomically friendly equipment, are a decided minority in the business. Progress is being made, however – so much so that I actually know people plying the trade in such lovely surroundings – lots of them. Unfortunately, this does not include me.

2. Too often, entertainment vehicles that feature a dispatch center include the best of technologies – things that may not be available in all areas. This movie does it a little differently – it’s plot moves along on the premise that a prepaid cell phone, such as those marketed by companies like TracfoneNet10 and others, cannot be located via Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking as other mobile phones can. This is not true – many of these phones do give their location when calling 9-1-1.

Cell Phone Reality #1: While technology can help 9-1-1 professionals locate people in need, it’s only one part of the solution. Human beings helping other human beings is still what makes this world go ’round.

If you’re really interested in learning more about the film from a 9-1-1 perspective, the Editor of 9-1-1 Magazine, probably the most informative publication about the profession, is also a film buff. His column about the movie is sure to entertain and inform anyone with more than a passing interest in what public safety folks do day-to-day.

Leetsdale Mayor’s Cautionary Tale Highlights Best Practice Challenges

What really got me thinking about things was this month’s Leetsdale Borough newsletter, specifically Mayor Pete Poninsky’s contribution, which is pictured above. The Mayor focused specifically on the fact that his town sits on the county line, and as such some cell phone calls to 9-1-1 go to neighboring Beaver County, when Allegheny County dispatches the borough’s police and fire departments.

This happens because some of the cell phone towers that provide coverage into Leetsdale are located in Beaver County, and are designed to send calls to the 9-1-1 center where the tower is located.

The Mayor’s comments raised my eyebrows a bit when he stated “The call will then be transferred to Allegheny County 9-1-1, which will cause a 5 to 6 minute delay“.

They stayed up when he suggested that cell phone users dial a 10-digit number, instead of 9-1-1, to reach Allegheny County directly and potentially avoid this delay.

As someone with more intimate knowledge of how this is supposed to work, I was surprised by this allegation. In general practice, the transfer of a call between one county’s 9-1-1 center to another should take no longer than 15 to 30 seconds to accomplish.

Great strides have been made in recent years to make sure that our area’s emergency services function in a well-coordinated fashion, beginning with simple, direct access via our national emergency number.

To recommend that citizens dial any number other than 9-1-1 in an emergency, regardless of how well-intentioned the reason, constitutes a step backward in these efforts.

I spoke with Mayor Poninsky, and asked him what information he had to support his general statement about call delays. The Mayor admitted that his statement was based not on an identified pattern or trend, but an isolated incident involving an ambulance call in the borough.

This brings up additional factors involving the reason for any delay, as calls for EMS in Leetsdale must also be transferred to Valley Ambulance Authority for response. The ambulance service maintains its own dispatch center, instead of relying on the county 9-1-1 center for service.

When trying to analyze how things work (and don’t) in complex systems such as public safety, it’s helpful to break things down into components common to best practices in many industries. For example:

Technology: There’s an obvious need for at least one more cell tower in Allegheny County to cover Leetsdale and surrounding areas. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to convince mobile phone companies that new towers are needed – more infrastructure cuts into their revenue and profits, and many communities try to resist towers over aesthetic or health-related concerns.

Leetsdale Police Chief James Santucci, who also has a background in dispatch center management, estimated that the dividing line between cell coverage from towers located in Allegheny or Beaver County is in the area of Henle Park and Victory Lane.

He also stated this can vary, however, on the user’s cell phone carrier and even what type of network they are using. Someone using Verizon’s 4G network, for example, may get coverage from a different tower than if they were on their 3G network.

Regardless of these variations in cell tower and/or network coverage, you as a citizen deserve to have your call processed promptly and efficiently, regardless of which side of an imaginary line you find yourself on. This involves factors that go beyond the physics of radio, or the cold calculus of electronics.

Cell Phone Reality #2: The person answering your 9-1-1 call may not be anywhere near your actual location, or as familiar with your area as you might be. Be prepared to answer questions as fully and calmly as you can.

Processes: Even though some towns and agencies choose to do their own dispatching, most of them tell their residents to call 9-1-1 in an emergency. They know that by doing this it will also trigger the notification of agencies that they do not coordinate, but that may also be needed.

The 9-1-1 centers in turn must quickly gather the required basic information, identify the need for a transfer, and successfully make that transfer. This happens hundreds of times a day in our area.

Unfortunately, at times the information necessary to determine whether or not the call requires a transfer is unclear, or must be repeated to multiple people. Chief Santucci cited this as a possible contributing factor to the incident that the Mayor referred to in his newsletter article.

This highlights a process that also involves technology – the ability to quickly share data between dispatch centers could speed things up considerably, but would require a solution to connect what are currently different computer systems.

People: None of the above can truly succeed without the effort of dedicated, well-trained professionals and the cooperation of an engaged, well-informed citizenry. Unfortunately, it’s also a given that the amount of dedication, training, cooperation, and awareness varies greatly.

Challenges like these extend across all of these areas, especially as technology continues to evolve, processes adjust to adapt, and people change their lives in response..or not.

Cell Phone Reality #3: Your brand new, state-of-the-art smartphone may be eclipsed by the next big thing 6 months from now. 9-1-1, however, has been behind the curve from the start.

Since cell phones first hit the marketplace in the mid-1980’s, those of us in public safety communications have been playing catch-up with the industry to assure that citizens who have an emergency situation can use this technology to get the right help to the right place.

This has been a tough job, especially when popular features such as text messaging, mobile Internet and VoIP phone services, still and video cameras, and the ability to upload information to social media platforms has become commonplace – all without assuring first that public safety and 9-1-1 are prepared to deal with it.

The primary government agency that holds sway over the mobile phone industry is the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC makes the rules that require the cell phone companies to provide for location information, as well as to promptly report cell service outages or disruptions.

Cell Phone Reality #4: The FCC also made the rule that requires all working cell phones to be able to call 9-1-1, regardless of whether or not there is a service plan for them. In other words, remove the battery from your old cell phone before giving it to a child to play with. Please and thank you…

The Future Is..Wait a Minute, It’s Here Already

If you have a modern cell phone, you hold a marvel in your hands. The technology that makes your phone work is revolutionizing telephone systems from the ground up. The foundational world of mechanical, then electronic switching that made our landline telephone network possible is gradually giving way to the Internet as a new foundation – and 9-1-1 is following suit as best it can.

Next Generation 9-1-1 offers the promise of establishing reliable communications networks that can handle all of the different ways that critical information can be sent today. It also changes the way that 9-1-1 services can be accessed and delivered, allowing for greater efficiency and the potential for reducing long-term operating costs.

The state agency that oversees the provision of 9-1-1 service in Pennsylvania is the Pa. Emergency Management Agency. PEMA appears to have a handle on the needs, benefits, and challenges behind making the transition to this next level of technology, in order to positively address citizens’ expectations of both effective service delivery and that government revenue be spent in an efficient, responsible manner.

This involves processes and people as well. The removal of physical limits related to legacy phone networks creates the potential for consolidation of both dispatch centers and the vendors that provide them with technology and maintenance support. A recent illustration of these potential trends from another industry is the announcement this past week of the rumored phasing out of the US Airways operations center in Moon Township.

Another example of how much things may be changing came to light this month as well, as the FCC posted a notice that they will be looking into the possibility of changing that rule about all working cell phones being able to call 9-1-1.

This is in response to the volumes of accidental calls from those phones that aren’t connected to a service provider – we affectionately call these butt dials, pocket dials, purse dials, toddler dials, etc. These tie up both available lines and the personnel responsible for promptly answering them.

There is no shortage of good public information out there about calling 9-1-1. April is National 9-1-1 Education Month – it also marks National Public Safety Telecomunicator Week.

There are plenty of online resources available for free download by citizens, government officials, and educators to help make sure that, even in the midst of unique local operational practices, a simple, direct, and easy to understand message is being sent.

Change is a Constant

Regardless of the direction all of this goes, dynamic changes like these will continue to impact the way we live. That may sound awfully simplistic, but I don’t know of any clearer way to say it.

This also applies to things that we take for granted even more, and perhaps understand even less about what it takes to deliver them to us. Stay tuned…

Cell Phone Reality #5: We’re doing the best we know how. Your cooperation is essential to our success on your behalf.

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