Whether by cellphone or wireline handset, most Canadians expect that hitting 9-1-1 will not only connect to an emergency agency, the system will also be able to automatically tell responders where they are.
But a research report from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission issued Thursday says we’re wrong to rely on being found by wireless devices. Accurate wireless location only happens on TV, says the report by former CRTC commissioner Tim Denton.
In fact, the location indicated to public service agencies could be out by the length of a football field, or several city blocks, the report says And so-called next-generation 9-1-1 service for wireless devices won’t solve the problem. Meanwhile wireless VoIP handsets have no location capabilities at all.
Wireless caller location accuracy “remains a serious unresolved issue,” Denton said in the report.
Not only that Denton complained that for all its importance and the estimated $279 million a yhear spent on it, the governance of 9-1-1 service in provinces and territories is fragmented and inconsistent across a number of carriers and public agencies.
In his report, which can be read here, he recommends
–a national 911 policy forum be created including carriers, public safety agencies that answer 911 calls, carriers, Public Safety Canada, police, fire and ambulance associations and other related groups.
The forum would deal with everything from training standards for those who answer 911 calls to performance metrics (how long it takes to get someone to the caller) to public education campaigns (911 isn’t a magic locator) to considering next-generation 911 issues;
–the CRTC should have a dedicated staff working on 911 problems that could look into whether incumbent phone companies should manage 9-1-1 databases or they should be looked after by independent agencies. It look at where the millions of dollars that go to carriers for 9-1-1 is used;
–Tell the CRTC’s emergency services working group (ESWG) — composed of about 35 carriers, agencies that answer 9-1-1 calls provincial government and municipal representatives and industry specialists that advise the commission on technical issues – that it has to give a high priority to improving wireless device location accuracy.
The working group should be given some elbow room with a budget so it can have a secretariat and meet in places other than the offices of telcos, the report adds.
The CRTC is asking the public for comment on the recommendations by Nov. 24. It will hold a formal review either next year or in 2015.
“There will be resistance in some quarters to seeing the 9-1-1 system as a whole, let alone as one which is linked to emergency response and other related issues, such as search and rescue,” Denton says. And some won’t welcome new voices.
But, he says, “current arrangements are inadequate in relation to the importance and scope of 911, and to the evolution of 911 in the public interest.”
“911 is like a brand,” Denton wrote, “but unlike a commercial brand, the actual product – police, fire and ambulance assistance when you need it – is delivered different ways in different provinces/territories, and at different service levels. Sometimes, it is not available at all. This reflects the differing approaches adopted by the provinces and territories, and the fact that first responders must be based locally.
“But, though 9-1-1 has evolved by scales appropriate to driving distances, the common identifier (9-1-1), and the possibilities of modern computer communications, work in the other direction, from the brand outward. The 9-1-1 brand cuts across jurisdictions and, therefore, solutions to problems with 9-1-1 service delivery must do the same.”
Before cellphones, 9-1-1 was relatively simple, though not necessarily more helpful: If a person made an emergency call they would often still need to give the operator his location. Enhanced 9-1-1 allowed names and addresses to show up on an operator’s screen, and, for wireless devices latitude and longitude that could be translated to locations on a map. But it doesn’t give a precise location for technical reasons. But location identification relies on cellphones with GPS capability. Older handsets don’t have it. And those using wireless VoIP handsets may not realize it but these devices don’t have GPS location capabilities either.
Not only that, technology has evolved and people travel so much that the registered phone number on a handset may be hundreds of kilometres from where the person actually lives.
Under a 2007 order, incumbent carriers have to provide enhanced information to 9-1-1 operators in life and deal circumstances, sort a reverse 9-1-1.
Meanwhile, Denton found that people with disabilities can be shortchanged with the current system.
But in some rural areas don’t have 9-1-1 service; people there dial a regular phone number to reach emergency staff.
There are a number of agencies that have a hand in 9-1-1 service including the CRTC (the lead agency that oversees telecommunications carriers); provincial, territorial and municipal governments (who manage 9-1-1 call centres — sometimes located in police stations. Some provinces directly oversee, others like B.C. and Ontario leave it up to local governments); Public Safety Canada (co-ordinates federal agencies responsible for national security and safety. It’s also responsible for the national disaster mitigation strategy.)
Denton noted that the U.S. is more serious about public safety and 9-1-1 than Canada that this country would do well to follow. There’s a National 9-1-1 office whose job is to improve co-ordination between agencies and establishing a national database to help accurately measure the status and planned capabilities of 9-1-1 systems.
With wireless and wired carrier networks becoming IP-based, there are plans for a so-called next-generation 9-1-1 that would allow people to call for help using instant messaging and social media, and to send photos or videos of people in distress or buildings on fire.
NG 9-1-1 could also allow call centres to relay building schematics to emergency responders. One question, Denton noted, is where the money will come from to pay for their equipment to be upgraded to handle these capabilities.