MCP Insights

The Public Safety Communications Challenges We’re Tackling in 2020

Posted on March 4, 2020 by Sherri Griffith Powell

Earlier this year, public safety communications professionals from across the country came together in Austin, TX, to discuss and address the most pressing issues facing the industry at NENA’s Standards & Best Practices Conference. We discussed in a previous blog post why events like this one are critical to our industry’s success in continuing to improve emergency response outcomes. Which challenges are we tackling this year and what’s next for 911?

911 Caller Location

As an industry, we have spent more than a decade working through the challenges of locating a caller. Why are we still talking about it?

  • Assumptions about location have changed and 911 has moved in the direction of preferring a dispatchable location over an XYZ location, which many times means nothing to callers or dispatchers.
  • Three-dimensional location could help responders find a caller who doesn’t know, or cannot provide, an address. However, development of technologies to support this is slow due to limited funding.
  • The FCC’s current accuracy requirements for wireless calls are inconsistent. For example, requirements for X and Y coordinates are 50 meters, but requirements for Z coordinates are 3 meters. This means there is potential for responders to end up on the right floor, but in the wrong building.
  • Some industry leaders are calling for a total switch from sector-based location routing to device-based location routing to help curb workload issues.

As technology continues to change, the way we locate callers will continue to change as well. The discussion on caller location and changes to standard operating procedures and best practices is not likely to end any time soon.

Real Time Text

Real time text, or RTT, is a new tool in the communications toolbox for the industry. An informational document is currently in its final phases and almost ready to be released. In addition, training and public education resources are also underway to help distinguish RTT from TTY and SMS text-to-911 and will include:

  • Information on policies for the use of these technologies
  • The differences between, and limitations of, each one
  • How they can be used together
  • What a timetable for public education and training rollout could look like

It’s important to note that RTT will not replace SMS text-to-911. Rather, Emergency Communications Centers (ECCs) will need to implement both technologies as a complement to one another and implement operational guidelines for their use.

Social Media

It can sometimes feel as if we’ve been discussing social media and its impact on 911 and emergency response for as long as we’ve been discussing caller location challenges. That’s because we pretty much have. In 2012, NENA released an informational document with best practices for using social media in 911, but since that document was released it’s been discovered that the bulk of the industry has been using social media for informational and educational purposes only. While public expectation on how we use social media has certainly changed, the industry has been slow to meet those expectations.

When Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017, people turned to social media to request emergency assistance when traditional communications were down. As an industry, we can no longer ignore social media. We need to start working toward developing guidelines for integrating it into operations and setting standard operating procedures for addressing social media requests for service. We also need to consider if there are lessons to be learned from other industries and their use of social media, for example, the utility industry.

We know that developing standards and implementing best practices are critical to improving emergency response outcomes. Bringing together industry professionals helps us zero in on the industry’s most pressing issues and identify the trends and technologies that will help us to continue to evolve 911 this year and into the future.


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