911 outages a danger to all

Modern and legacy 911 telecommunication systems have weaknesses and potential failure points, which puts civilians and responders at risk

When I was working as an EMS communication center supervisor, a veteran dispatcher perfectly described the center’s function as the "head of the beast."

While most EMS providers perform critical field functions, personnel within a modern day 911 call center are responsible for coordinating all of an EMS system’s resources. From call intake, pre-arrival instructions and dispatch, to resource monitoring, inter- and intra-agency coordination and scheduling routine calls, a 911 telecommunications center has to be functional 100 percent of the time.

Beyond the training and expertise of its human resources, the technical aspects of the system must also be of high quality, and the ability to rapidly bring backup systems online must be reliable.

As the recent breakdown of the Baltimore 911 system demonstrated, the potential of a major crisis caused by a system failure can’t be understated. Judging from the media reports, it looks like the incident was handled quickly, with some concern about communicating the backup plan to the general public.

What’s more interesting — and concerning — to me is the second part of the article. It’s true that most current 911 systems are rooted in older "Plain Old Telephone Service" (POTS) technology.

Hundreds and thousands of miles of copper wires connect a community’s landline phones to a separate system that allows automatic number identification and automatic location identification to happen when a 911 call is placed. A traditional 911 system can allow a telecommunicator to lock the connection with the caller or even to re-establish contact when the line is open.

The entire system is also antiquated. In today’s world of modern telephony and the convergence of digital data with voice, the existing 911 system is unable to deliver the data throughput necessary to transmit or sustain things like video calls or text messages. Such abilities can be delivered through internet-based communication systems, similar to many of the business-oriented communication systems now exist.

POTS does have one major difference. It is a closed system.

Internet systems are by nature, open.

Sophisticated and expensive processes exist to prevent unauthorized entry by those with more nefarious intent to disrupt public safety communications. To do so would be to interrupt the minute-to-minute operations. At best, that could mean dropped calls for service; at worse, a system may be unable to respond adequately to a major act of terrorism.

Florida officials described a 911 outage as a "very scary few hours." A report of the January incident, released last week, blamed the 911 outage as a mixture of human and technological error during a software upgrade, which rendered the system unstable.

Most EMS professionals never think about the reliability of their communication systems. It’s a mere inconvenience when a unit is unable to establish or maintain a connection or when dispatch sends the wrong unit or over triage a call.

But the nightmare scenario of an accidental or intentional major communication blackout, stranding responders in the field, and being unable to convey information among officials, other agencies and public weighs heavily in the minds of 911 system designers.

While the new technology may be more powerful, it does come with its weaknesses that can be exploited. 

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