Technology Changing; Telcos Struggle to Keep Up

Future 911 Technology is changing so quickly that emergency communication systems are struggling to keep pace

By Kim-Mai Cutler, Globe Correspondent

Picture a highway crash: a vehicle flips over in the center lane. Ten cars plow into the twisted wreck. Panicked witnesses dial 911. They shoot video of the scene with their cell phones. Drivers too distraught to speak text message the call center. A vehicle with a built-in security system automatically dials 911 after the air bags are deployed. It forwards the driver's health history, letting police know he has had two heart attacks before.

It's not a far-off scenario with the development of Next Generation

911 or NG911 for short, a new emergency call system run via Internet protocol that will allow rescuers to plug and play all of the latest communications technologies. A consortium funded with a $570,000 grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of the Department of Commerce, is conducting trials at call centers in Virginia and Texas, routing voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP), mobile video, and text messages to 911 responders. The group, which includes Columbia University, Texas A&M University, and the National Emergency Number Association, hopes to run a full-scale test in 2008, using real emergency calls.

An overhauled 911 system would open a world of possibilities: responders could send a video demo of the Heimlich maneuver to a cell phone if a family member is choking, or firefighters could receive a burning building's floor plan before they reach the scene.

Because it is Internet-based, it would be easier to incorporate unforeseen technological breakthroughs, unlike the current struggle to handle VoIP calls and the decade-long process of upgrading to handle wireless 911. Under the new architecture, data would be broken down into packets sent through the network, which handles several different types of information. In the old system, data flowed in a continuous stream, meaning only one type of data could be handled at a time.

"Technology around communications are evolving really fast and 911 doesn't keep up really well with that," said Gabe Elias, a senior systems engineer at a Virginia call center testing the new technology.

When the first 911 call was made in 1968 from Haleyville, Ala., it came in over a traditional land-line phone. In a land-line system, emergency operators simply match the phone number in a database of registered addresses and dispatch responders.

But telecommunications have become exponentially more complicated, requiring costly upgrades to thousands of call centers around the country.

"Whenever a new telecom technology came along, we had to completely rebuild the infrastructure," said Henning Schulzrinne, a Columbia University computer science professor leading the program.

In the 1990s, the country slowly upgraded to accommodate cell phone callers. Because they aren't fixed to a location, it became slightly more difficult to find them. Emergency call centers locate callers based on signals from nearby cell towers or by tracking global positioning system chips embedded in the phones. Even now, about 25 percent of all call centers cannot provide both the location and number of wireless callers.

Today, an estimated 2.9 million people have switched over to VoIP technology, which means a call could be routed through servers all over the country before it reaches a 911 center. They could be dialing through a computer using Wi Fi, or through an Internet-enabled phone . Currently, if a person dials 911 through VoIP on a computer, they have to type in their location, which could be imperfect if they're in a state of panic or are in an unfamiliar place.

Pressure to offer emergency services reached VoIP providers last year when a 17-year-old girl in Houston tried to call 911 through her house's VoIP line after an intruder shot her parents. But when she dialed 911, she reached a recording and had to run over to a neighbor's house to call the police. The Texas attorney general filed a lawsuit against Vonage Holdings Corp., charging that it did not clearly disclose that its 911 services were not always available. The case is still pending.

The future offers even more bewildering possibilities for 911 operators. There could be widespread use of WiMAX-enabled mobile phones, which would make calls through wireless broadband networks extending for miles, making it impossible to locate them using cell phone towers.

"There's not a single technology that's going to work for locating everything," said Walt Magnussen, the director of telecommunications at Texas A&M, which is also playing a leading role in the project.

However, the new system will at least be able to route all different kinds of data, he said.

The increased ability of the new system to transmit emergency data raises privacy concerns for some who worry that photos of emotionally distraught victims or medical information could be leaked.

"There certainly could be abuses," said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "Visuals and text messages would become public record that could later be obtained by news media and others."

But NG911's backers say the system will run on a private network and that the benefit of locating victims in distress outweighs threats to privacy. As new applications arise, particularly ones that involve medical history, lawmakers will decide what will be allowed through the revamped 911 system.

"I don't think there has ever been a technology that man has invented that could not be abused," Magnussen said.

Kim-Mai Cutler can be reached at Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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