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NG911: WebRTC to the Rescue

Earlier this month campus safety at my alma mater, Towson University, became pressworthy at No Jitter. Not because something bad happened, but something good -- it seems it has implemented a mobile public safety solution for students and faculty. What also got my attention was that this solution, from SaferMobility, is based on WebRTC.

As some of you may already know, the vast majority of 911 public-safety answering points (PSAPs) are still using analog or TDM technologies. While some jurisdictions have implemented the IP-based architecture defined by the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), which is the governing body for 911 standards, adoption has been slow.

The challenge is the migration of computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and geo-location solutions from old voice switches to new voice switches. First, this is difficult to do without interrupting services, and second, voice is not the only media that is important. Add short message service, video, and file transfer to the mix, and you can see why adoption of any one-for-one VoIP replacement solutions has been slow.


PSAPs have lived with features defined by service providers for so long that most are not aware that alternatives are available. Culturally, telecom professionals have the same problem. Getting "outside the box" is difficult when carriers and the government are writing the rules. Towson has ignored the box. That is the power of WebRTC. If you don't like what the telco offers, then create your own features.

While 911 upgrades are mired in indecision, budget deficiencies, and political squabbles, SaferMobility has flipped the switch on emergency communications services. The architecture allows for implementation in parallel with existing 911/CAD solutions, but it does not replace them -- at least, not for now. These solutions offer a clean slate.

Coincidentally, NENA and its European counterparts have defined architecture for NG911. It includes signaling and media services that are logically separated in a peer-to-peer architecture in support of SIP communications and integration of multiple sources of contextual data. Their efforts are interesting in that the codecs for any communications media supported by SIP are supported by WebRTC, too.

Further, broad swaths of SIP signaling content can be reused in WebRTC. So for recording and encryption, it is no surprise that SaferMobility is using Dialogic media services that comply with the NENA's NG911 architecture. In other words, adoption of solutions like SaferMobility for alternative 911 services provide PSAPs with a migration strategy to complete NG911 implementation.

In addition to the NG911 media and signaling services, SaferMobility's solution has two components: a mobile app and a dispatcher interface. The mobile app runs on the Android and Apple iOS operating systems, and the dispatcher interface runs within a Chrome browser. The mobile app supports two methods of engaging emergency services. One is a replication of the existing 911 services, although with different data and architecture. The second is a very different use case for triggering the engagement of emergency resources.

One unique "mobile escort" feature allows a user to start up the mobile app on a smartphone and press his or her thumb to the screen until arriving at a safe location. If the user removes his or her thumb from the screen for more than five seconds (minimum and configurable), then the smartphone location data, video, and audio begin streaming to the PSAP interface while sounding an audible alarm on the smartphone. This content is stored in a secure repository as evidence and integration with CAD systems is available. This is not your father's 911.

Steve Peck, board of visitors member at Towson and SVP at SAP, shared this thought: "Student safety is paramount to any university. This is the type of innovative solution that can be implemented and adopted quickly at a relatively low cost and make a significant impact to the overall safety plan."

The brilliance of the Towson implementation is that it does not break anything while offering a unique and functional alternative to dialing 911. The industry has recognized this with awards from the National Organization of Black Law Executives and the Cellular Telephone Industry Association WebRTC adoption is happening in places where complexity trumps the ability for government or telcos to respond. Add this to the long list of WebRTC solutions that Amazon, Comcast, Vonage, and Yahoo already have brought to market.