The 911 emergency system is outdated. Updating it to the cloud is risky.

Unlike tech companies, emergency services departments can’t afford to make mistakes when migrating to the cloud. Integrating new software in an industry where there’s no margin for error is risky, and sometimes deadly.

Tin cans labelled 911 connected by string.

In an industry where seconds can mean the difference between life and death, many public safety departments are hesitant to take risks on new cloud-based technologies.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Dialing 911 could be the most important phone call you will ever make. But what happens when the software that’s supposed to deliver that call fails you? It may seem simple, but the technology behind a call for help is complicated, and when it fails, deadly.

The infrastructure supporting emergency contact centers is one of the most critical assets for any city, town or local government. But just as the pandemic exposed the creaky tech infrastructure that runs local governments, in many cases the technology in those call centers is outdated and hasn’t been touched for decades.

Now more than ever, first responders and public safety officials are recognizing the need to take 911 into the cloud. But in an industry where seconds can mean the difference between life and death, many public safety departments are hesitant to take risks on new cloud-based technologies.

However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t aware of the limitations of their current systems. The need for increased resilience in the face of outages or natural disasters, a desire for better location data and the benefits of introducing more ways of communicating with first responders via text or video are pushing some 911 systems into the cloud.

Making the call

The first 911 call was made only 40 to 50 years ago, said Robin Erkkila, a 911 solutions engineer at software company Bandwidth.

Although it appears straightforward on the surface, dialing 911 requires a number of parties to interact, from telecommunications providers and device manufacturers to local governments and first responders.

When a 911 call is placed in the modern era, it probably goes first to a cell phone carrier, then to the 911 network normally operated by state governments, where it's then routed to a public safety answering point, or PSAP, said Brandon Abley, director of Technology for the National Emergency Number Association. “That's where someone answers your call and dispatches somebody,” he said. “And then you finally have people in the field. That's the fifth domain where we have to get the information out to the terminal and the firefighters.”

At each point in this process, some form of technology is involved, whether it's checking a caller’s location or identifying the nearest fire station.

Basically what happened is that since the ‘70s and ‘80s, the technology there hasn't changed a great deal.

The challenge is that the technology supporting most 911 systems is often outdated. “Basically what happened is that since the ‘70s and ‘80s, the technology there hasn't changed a great deal,” said Alex Dizengof, co-founder and CTO of cloud-based emergency communications provider Carbyne. That’s because building systems to support 911 contact centers or PSAPs is a lot more complicated than traditional contact centers.

For one, any system that supports 911 faces the challenges of being both incredibly open and readily accessible, yet extremely secure. “Everyone can dial 911 but on the other hand, it's supposed to be the most secure platform ever built by the government,” said Dizengof.

Emergency contact centers still face many of the same challenges as traditional on-premises contact centers. Like traditional contact centers, some 911 dispatch centers are limited in the number of calls they can handle or are subject to the impacts of physical damage in the event of a natural disaster. These challenges are further elevated by the critical nature of the services these dispatch centers provide.

In most contact centers, there are limits to the number of calls that can be handled concurrently. While that can be inconvenient for a traditional contact center, it’s mission critical for 911. During a national emergency such as a hurricane or earthquake, a PSAP could receive several dozen if not hundreds of calls at the same time, but only be able to handle 14 simultaneously, said Dizengof. Even if there were more calls, the contact center just couldn’t take them.

In other cases, a natural disaster can completely overtake a public safety answering point, preventing dispatch operators from communicating with first responders. In the past, during a hurricane for example, “you had dispatch centers that were literally ripping equipment out of the racks and trying to get them into trucks so they could drive somewhere else and set up,” said Abley.

There are other challenges that are unique to 911 contact centers, like the need to quickly and accurately pinpoint a caller’s location. Although modern consumer devices can easily determine a caller’s location, that same technology hasn’t made its way into the 911 system. If a caller’s location isn’t properly identified, it delays the process of dispatching first responders.

In the early days of 911, the location of a caller was easily determined because telephone companies knew exactly where their landlines were, said Abley; each phone had an associated address. But when cell phones were invented, that same process no longer worked.

Many 911 systems route calls based on which cellular tower the phone is connected to as a workaround, but that has its challenges too. For example, If a caller lives in New Jersey but is connected to a cell tower in New York, their call would be routed to a public safety answering point in New York, said Dizengof. Unfortunately that problem is fairly common.

“I know that some PSAPs are still receiving between 10 and sometimes even 20% of misrouted calls where they need to answer them and route them back to the correct jurisdiction,” he said.

The 911 cloud

Migrating to the cloud has the potential to solve many of the challenges facing 911 contact centers, from providing flexibility to scale contact center seats seamlessly to enabling better resilience in the face of outages or natural disasters.

Scale is one of the traditional benefits of the cloud, providing the ability to adjust capacity up and down as needed without having to pay for a fixed number of physical seats. A sheriff's office can’t necessarily afford to build a contact center that operates dozens of seats or thousands of backup servers, said Abley. “It's just a scale they can't operate at, but that's the business model that cloud providers offer.”

The cloud also provides much-needed resilience to a critical operation that needs to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“Today when you're doing legacy 911 deployments, you have physical lines coming to physical centers,” said Dizengof. But if there’s a flood or a fire, those lines are just going to be cut and put the PSAP out of operation. “It's very tragic and it's very devastating when the most important service during this natural disaster that should function is 911 and it's not functioning.”

Operating in the cloud helps limit these types of disruptions from power or connectivity failures. With the cloud, since infrastructure isn’t tightly coupled to a physical location, it ensures that no 911 contact center has a single point of failure. If cloud systems “are geo-diverse, they operate multiple call centers [and] operate in a virtual cloud spread across the country, then you're not gonna go down,” said Erkkila.

The prevalence of misrouted calls can also be reduced via cloud systems, because they’re better at pinpointing location data. The industry as a whole is moving towards using device-based location services, said Dizengof. With the cloud, 911 contact centers can more easily connect to mobile devices and pinpoint granular location data automatically, down to which floor someone is on inside of a building.

Migrating 911 to the cloud also opens up new avenues for citizens to communicate with first responders. In many large-scale emergencies ordinary citizens often share photos and videos via social media, but have no way of providing this information to first responders. “It goes to Twitter, goes to Facebook. The most important people that should get this information, 911, police officers, are not getting this information,” said Dizengof. Instead, officers themselves turn to social media to understand what’s going on. Cloud-based software changes this by enabling citizens to communicate with emergency services via text or video in real time.

In some cases, providing citizens with the ability to communicate with 911 via text or video can be lifesaving.

“We had a kidnap situation where a wife was being held hostage by her own husband with the gun, and in this situation you're not even able to communicate verbally,” said Dizengof. But by communicating with 911 via chat and video, the wife was able to explain her situation and show authorities exactly where her husband was. Armed with the location of both the wife and husband, a SWAT team was able to storm in and capture the husband while the wife ran to safety.

While there are benefits to upgrading analog telephone networks to the cloud, there are also certainly disadvantages that come along with depending on any cloud service. Operating over the public internet can make 911 systems more susceptible to cyberattacks or downtime when there are internet outages. Even a simple coding error can prevent thousands of people from reaching 911.

Next-generation 911

In the future, cloud-911 backers believe that additional capabilities such as AI, natural-language processing and automation will make 911 even more responsive, allowing dispatchers to more accurately route calls, provide automated responses where appropriate or group similar incidents.

Despite the challenges of legacy 911 systems and the promises of the cloud, in public safety circles, there is still a fair amount of resistance to the cloud.

The public safety community is very conservative, both Dizengof and Abley said, which means emergency departments aren’t the first to jump on new technologies. “It's just resistance to change and new technology, and in my opinion, very outdated concepts of security,” said Abley. “For example, most of our systems in the public safety area are not exposed to the public internet.”

But there are good reasons for this more cautious approach. “With internet companies, we can move fast and break things and we can burn through a lot of venture capital and come up with cool stuff,” said Abley. “That's not really okay when it's something a firefighter needs to rescue you.”

Unlike tech companies, emergency services departments can’t afford to make mistakes when migrating to the cloud.

Firefighters, for instance, who use radios to communicate with dispatchers when entering burning buildings, “trust their jurisdiction to operate a very reliable system that is 99.999% reliable,” said Abley. While updating those radios to cutting-edge technology sounds nice, it can be extremely risky to do in an industry where there’s no margin for error.

As the world modernizes its technology at a dizzying pace, emergency services remain an arena where there needs to be a bent towards safety and security, even at the risk of using outdated technologies. “It's a very critical system,” said Dizengof. “It's the most critical infrastructure a county could have and the most critical information source.”

Despite the hesitation, adoption of cloud-based emergency contact software is actually increasing. “We're seeing more and more PSAPs adopt these technologies. We're seeing this becoming a standard,” said Dizengof.

It may take time, but like enterprise companies, Abley thinks public safety will eventually become less wary of the cloud.

“Seven or eight years ago, you had big companies suspicious of the cloud, of cloud services. They aren't anymore, but they were,” he said. “And public safety is always culturally a few years behind, technologically speaking.”


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