Fewer people rush to a phone box or use their land lines to call 999 in an emergency these days. Instead, they are much more likely to reach for their mobile phone and even then a voice call may not be their first option.
They may prefer to communicate using photos, video, social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, and instant messaging channels.
So when it comes to choosing their equivalent of a Next Generation 999 (NG999) solution, emergency services around the world are having to consider a system capable of handling more than just voice.
The USA, for example, is pioneering an initiative known as ‘Next Generation 911’, which will allow callers to contact the emergency services via text, photographs and video, as well as enabling them to receive telematic data, medical information and data from sensors and alarms.
John Medland, 999/112 policy manager at BT, outlined some of the issues involved in this kind of upgrade when he addressed a session at the recent British APCO 2013 show.
Current 999/112 services
BT carries out 999/112 call handling on behalf of the UK emergency services. It handles four types of call: mobile, fixed, private networks and some VoIP calls. It also filters out calls – around 55% do not get passed through to the emergency services.
BT receives approximately 36 million 999/112 calls a year: 25 million via mobiles, 11 million from fixed line and about 100 from VoIP. In addition, it receives some emergency SMS notices and around 300 telematic data notifications a month from crashed vehicles.
BT’s network automatically prioritises all emergency calls and matches phone numbers to postcodes and mobile calls to cell sites to speed up emergency response.
The service is compatible with the Enhanced Information Service for Emergency Calls (EISEC) system, which automatically forwards name and address information to emergency control centres.
However, Medland noted that EISEC is still not used by some police and fire services, adding: ‘Locations of mobile devices are approximate; it is a challenge to be more precise. With VoIP, the attraction is you can move around. But we see no way to pinpoint where the caller is without getting more people involved – internet providers, for example.’
Changes in equipment supplier technology are also an issue. BT needs to be able to handle a move by the emergency services to IP-based networks and SIP (session initiation protocol) trunking calls.
Medland says: ‘The SIP protocol that sets up VoIP calls provides a gateway between IP and PSTN (public switched telephone network) to the emergency services. But BT call centres sit in a circuit switch environment still, so we need gateways to IP networks. We need to manage a long transition to IP networks from PSTN and PSAPs (public safety answering points).’
Next Generation 999
Should Next Generation 999 be voice only or include the new IP-based technology capable of supporting voice, real time texts, photographs and video?
‘We asked emergency services for their views and they told us that yes, there would be a lot of benefits if they could see what is happening at the incident,’ says Medland. ‘We would need to manage this data and we’d only want to send relevant data – but who decides what’s relevant?’
Naturally, visual evidence would provide the benefit of greater situational awareness for the emergency service teams responding to an incident, so there is great potential there. The question is: how to move forward? The challenges ahead, according to Medland include:
- IP communication challenges
- Citizen education
- Difficult to locate IP callers
- Handling multiple organisations/technologies.
Mobile smartphones present other challenges both in terms of the variety of technologies that can be used to contact the emergency services and in educating the public on how best to use them.
Medland suggests that the development of a simple 999/112 app for mobiles would help users. But one of the key issues that needs solving is finding a way to make automatic location of the mobile caller more precise. ‘Smartphone location by assisted GPS or Wi-Fi is there, but we can’t make that location available to the emergency services,’ says Medland.
‘At BT we are asking whether we can design an app without disrupting the 999 voice call. The way it would work is that the 999 app on the smartphone would recognise a 999 call is being made and the phone would activate the GPS/Wi-Fi facilities and collect the location information and send it to the control centre.’
Medland reports that the system is being trialled in different situations. At the present time, location information derived from the mobile cell coverage area is quite wide at 4km. Wi-Fi access points provide location to a 75m accuracy and GPS to a much more satisfactory 4m. Medland says in the trials so far, they have got GPS location information in 65% of cases, but have to fall back on mobile cells for the rest.
He noted that some mobile phone handsets are designed to block this, so there is a need to talk to manufacturers and chipset makers. ‘They are interested,’ says Medland, ‘but they need mobile networks to help BT push them to do it and the emergency services need to help drive this too.’
Medland identified a need to build a better business case by promoting the benefits of such a system, including shorter 999 calls driving a quicker response and fewer questions about location due to reduced caller stress.
Looking at efforts to move forward, Medland said BT has met with Vodafone, O2 and 3, the Home Office and senior police officers. It has also engaged with handset manufacturers. BT itself will need to configure its existing eSMS server to process information for location texts.
He summarised the current position as one where the UK has voice and caller location systems in existing networks, but challenges remain in establishing more precise location information and for overcoming inappropriate or accidental 999 calls.
‘The public expects to communicate with more than just voice now. The emergency services could achieve improved prioritisation using multimedia IP 999 sessions while containing costs. But to move forward we need clear requirements for e2e services and Government co-ordination to ensure we cost effectively solve the NG999 project,’ says Medland.
‘We should also participate in European NG112 work or the danger is we will fall behind. Nothing has happened since I addressed a similar session last year,’ warns Medland.
‘The 999 Liaison Committee (within Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions) is not well attended and is not at present looked to for strategic guidance. The Cabinet Office is expected to lead the NG999 project on behalf of HMG. It has identified JESIP (Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Programme), but JESIP is not able to include NG 999 in its scope. British APCO has offered assistance here’, says Medland.
He said an action plan needs to be agreed and representatives from ACPO, CFOA and AACE need to help drive it. ‘They need to make their central government representatives aware of the need for their action on all the topics and to get their involvement in both the 999 Liaison Committee and another new government body (perhaps Cabinet Office chaired?) to provide strategic guidance.’
Medland finished by saying that the British APCO task group needs support in providing operational expertise to help guide central government representatives and to help provide the business case for change to establish NG999.