Hot News from the 911 Front

The last five weeks have been very important in the world of 911 policy. So big, in fact, that 911 policy issues actually crossed the line into the mainstream (and away from the rarified space of policy nerds, first responders, and those who support them).

First, in mid-May, HBO's John Oliver raised the profile of the vulnerabilities of the current 911 network on his popular weekly show, "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, " as you can watch in this clip.

Secondly, Kari's Law, a small but powerful piece of legislation (requiring minor technical tweaks that stand to have an incredibly positive impact on those calling for emergency assistance when time is absolutely of the essence) moved from state legislatures to the U.S. House of Representatives where it received overwhelming support when it came to a vote on May 23. There's no date yet for its vote in the U.S. Senate, but the fact that's on the federal radar in an official way is a significant step forward.

And third, on June 3, victims of a March hostage drama filed a $45 million lawsuit against Verizon Communications. The lawsuit claims that the wireless provider's failure to properly deploy the 911 system in Vicksburg-Warren County, Miss., forced calls made from a victim's mobile device to be routed to a call center in Tallulah, La., thus preventing prompt response from law enforcement in a life-and-death situation. Ultimately the crisis ended, four hours after the initial call for help, when the victims were able to kill the escaped inmate holding them hostage. Obviously, lack of location information contributed to the delay. The case has been filed in Mississippi Federal Court.

Mobility Not Just an Issue in Mississippi
According to publicly available information, approximately 240 million 911 calls are placed each year from American households, businesses, public areas, cars, and just about everywhere else you can think of. Most of the calls involve life-and-death emergencies. Unfortunately, between 70% and 80% of 911 calls originate from mobile devices, according to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). This is bad news, particularly because location information, which is readily available from landline connections, is unreliable with cellular calls -- and not likely to improve significantly for at least another five years when federal law requires it.

As part of its January 2015 Open Meeting, the Federal Communications Commission adopted plans for the drafting and implementation of location accuracy rules for wireless providers. Included in this are plans for nationwide and smaller carriers to deploy sophisticated location information based on a caller's horizontal (X and Y coordinates) and vertical (Z coordinates) location. Major nationwide wireless providers must be prepared with a plan for implementation within 18 months (we're nearing that deadline now), with actual deployment taking place over between three and eight years. Yup. 2021. That's John Oliver's point. It's still a very long time from now, especially considering a first responder has four minutes to get to someone in cardiac distress.

Those of us in the 911 space are well-versed in its limitations, particularly when calls are made from mobile devices, or even (gasp!) when someone in distress tries to text to 911. This is (still) a bad idea in most parts of the country, but if you're reading this, it's likely that you already know that while devices may be able to send text messages, the public-safety answering points (PSAPs) are, in most cases, still unable to receive, let alone respond, to texts. But perhaps someone who has seen the John Oliver program will raise the profile to such an extent that those who determine PSAP funding, in terms of technology and manpower, will find the necessary dollars to bring these critical components of our nation's first responder networks into the 21st century.

Kari's Law Goes to Washington
As for Kari's Law, named after Kari Rene Hunt, who was murdered in December 2013 by her estranged husband in a Marshall, Texas, hotel room, the current version requires that all hotels nationwide provide direct access to 911 without the need for a caller to dial 9 or some other digit before reaching a dispatcher. This mandate is a direct result of the actions of Kari's young daughter, whose call for help was blocked because she wasn't aware that the hotel's phone system required the dialing of an extra digit. In an emergency, many people don't even consider the need for that extra digit. Given the ease with which a relatively small programming change can be made, and despite the fact that the elimination of that extra digit may result in more unnecessary calls to 911 (think "fat-finger disease," when people hit the wrong digits by mistake), this law is not likely to encounter major obstacles -- other than from legislators who want it to do more, particularly with respect to location identification, rather than less or nothing at all.

In addition to the House bill (H.R. 4167) the Senate has its own version (S.2553) marshalled by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D., MN) and Deb Fischer (R., NE) . Nothing will ever bring Kari Hunt back to those who loved her. But her legacy has already saved others. Hank Hunt, Kari's father, relentlessly challenged the hotel where Kari was murdered to change its system to allow direct access to 911. This past October, another incident occurred at the same hotel. Fortunately this time the caller was able to reach 911 dispatchers promptly, and police arrived on scene in time to save the victim's life. While the problem occurred in a hotel, it is hoped that in its final form Kari's Law will apply to any facility serviced by multi-line telephone systems, legally acknowledging how critical real-time, accurate access to 911 really is.

Doubt this is a real problem? Just ask those folks in Mississippi.