Data-driven decisions

The human cost of incorrectly routed emergency calls

Mar 13, 2019

Is the technology gap between existing call-taking systems and the wireless evolution evidence of an epidemic in operational failure?

Dictionary.com defines epidemic as “a rapid spread or increase in the occurrence of something.”

In June 2016, I wrote an article about how incorrectly routed 911 emergency calls were indeed failing members of the US public and leading to loss of lives.

There was the case of a North Carolina man, who received widespread media coverage – not because of his untimely passing – but because outdated systems did not locate his wife’s cellular call to 911 in a timely manner. This was just one of the too many examples being reported by the media.

Here’s the core issue: a citizen makes an emergency 911 call from a cell phone, and (periodically) the call is routed to the wrong Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP), causing delays that can have catastrophic results. Situations like these, where lives are lost, demand immediate improvement.

While this is the US experience, the potential for similar tragedies in Australia is real.

Australia’s national Emergency Call service is operated by Telstra and overseen by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Separately, some State-based authorities, like Queensland firefighters, police and paramedics already have access to the Government Wireless Network (GWN) – a secure digital radio communication network that allows multiple agencies to operate on a single channel. SES groups – from the border with New South Wales, out to Toowoomba and north to Gympie – are transitioning to the GWN over the next two years.

One of the reasons the GWN was introduced, was to improve network coverage and reduce communications black spots. However, the service doesn’t extend nationally, leaving remote areas of Australia – and areas where there are communications black spots – at risk of failure in emergencies.

In supporting more immediate response times, Esri has deepened its commitment to providing next-generation solutions to support the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and records management system (RMS) industry. The company has refocused its efforts to support five key challenges:

  • Outdated address databases
  • Borderless boundaries
  • Strategies to capture IP-based intelligence for 911
  • 3D visualisation, location accuracy and indoor routing
  • Empowering first responders with mobile capabilities

More information about the US situation is available in the 5 Ways GIS Empowers Next Generation 911 eBook.

Fast forward two and a half years, and more than ever, I believe that providers of 000 services – and indeed, emergency call providers worldwide – need to carefully evaluate their efforts and end what is still an operational epidemic. People continue to die because emergency calls are incorrectly routed, or first responders can’t physically locate the victim in time.

This is because PSAPs continue to rely on outdated analog technology that has not kept up with digital advances. PSAP solutions are expensive, and public decision-makers face restrictive budgets fuelled by citizen demands to reduce taxes. While these issues may help explain the slow adoption of this technology, should this be accepted practice?

Esri's ArcGIS platform provides tools and templates that can help PSAPs solve these pressing operational challenges. NENA, the 911 Association in the US, has selected Esri maps to build a nationwide PSAP boundary map for the US.

NENA’s CEO Brian Fontes shared with me that NENA is embarking on an improved PSAP registry. The improved database will benefit the public, public safety services and those businesses and services that need to utilise 911 data.

Australia’s public safety authorities face many of the same issues we face in the US – different States typically use different CAD systems, and all in varying stages of implementation or requiring upgrade. The vast size of the geographic jurisdictions each Australian State and Territory needs to manage, presents additional challenges.

Having the ability to quickly and accurately process location data will play an increasingly important role for public safety authorities globally.

Let’s hope that authorities in the global CAD sector keep their eye on the human cost of incorrectly routed emergency calls, and are able to end this epidemic once and for all.

Call 1800 870 750 to speak to an Esri Australia Emergency Services specialist or send us an email.

Mike King is meeting with local emergency services and law enforcement chiefs around Australia in March.

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