Using a phone to send videos, text and picture messages isn't a groundbreaking practice. But send a multimedia message from a mobile device to most 911 dispatch centers in the United States and help won't be on the way.
While most enterprises have moved away from the public switched telephone network (PSTN) to voice over IP (VoIP), 911 dispatch centers are still relying on hardware-based communications systems and legacy time-division multiplexing (TDM) infrastructure to handle and route incoming emergency calls.
Not only does this mean users can't use their smartphones to send a photo or text message, but more importantly, dispatch centers have a tougher time locating the position of VoIP and mobile device users making the call.
"There's a high assumption among citizens that if I text 911, someone is going to answer. But for most locations nationally, that's not necessarily the case," said Robert Clark, Unify's vice president of Next Gen 911 Solutions.
Enter next-generation 911 (NG 911). NG 911, backers say, can help public safety organizations update their systems and transition to a platform that better supports the communication habits of its users.
UC vendors, like Unify, Avaya and Cisco are tackling this problem with emergency communications platforms often based on their own existing enterprise voice products. At its heart, NG 911 has features similar to a unified communications or collaboration platform. NG 911 is an IP system that can support inbound and outbound multichannel communication traffic, such as SMS, video and voice.
"The 911 caller of the future will be able to communicate with whatever medium they choose to use," said Walt Magnussen, director of university telecommunications for Texas A&M University and who leads the NG 911 standards group for the National Emergency Number Association.
Another critical benefit of NG 911 is its ability to accurately map the location of IP-based communications devices. The static location database -- a list of phone numbers and their associated physical locations -- that most 911 systems use today don't work for IP-based communications, which can be anywhere at any time, Magnussen said.
"We've definitely heard of fire trucks showing up to the wrong location," said Nemertes Research analyst Irwin Lazar, citing just one of the shortfalls of the static location database. Emergency communications is a concern for many enterprises as they consider moving to softphones, he said.
NG 911 can help avoid location problems associated with IP-based communications. With NG 911, a device -- such as a mobile phone -- broadcasts its latitude and longitude, which is then sent to a geospace routing engine to determine location.
Can UC vendors encourage the move to next generation 911?
Unify, like other UC vendors, is rolling out NG 911 offerings for enterprises. Unify recently announced OpenScape First Response, an NG 911 communications platform. OpenScape First Response is a combination of Unify's VoIP call management platform and a switch that can handle multimedia traffic.
Cities or towns can deploy the software-based technology within their Public Safety Answering Point. Unlike restrictive hardware-based communication platforms, OpenScape First Response can handle voice, SMS, voice and video calls. Incoming multimedia data can be routed to the correct call center agent or first responder.
The flexible platform can be scaled up to handle high call volumes in the event of disasters or other events, Unify's Clark said.
While UC vendors are offering NG 911 products that will supply the multimedia switch to the enterprise, 911 dispatch centers have to have the same switch on their side to receive emergency communications from IP communications users and to also be able to track their location.
Even as municipalities and other government agencies begin to roll out NG 911, the time needed to incorporate the new technology poses a challenge. It takes each state an average of six to eight years to plan and deploy a NG 911 system. At the same time, the technology that legacy 911 systems were built on is creeping into retirement. "Telecommunication companies are trying to figure out how to shut their [TDM switches] off because they cost too much to support," Magnussen said.
"We might not have as much time as we think we have to make the transition to NG 911," he said.
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