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The Future of 9-1-1

There's a certain expectation that comes with dialing 9-1-1.

It's the nation's panic button, a hotline to a helping hand when we need it most. But the system is aging or, rather, telecommunications technology is surpassing it quickly. A growing number of households have dropped the landline phone in favor of cell phones. And Internet telephony - from providers such as Vonage - has gathered some steam over the years as a number of startups have entered the space.

All of this has had an impact on the 9-1-1 system and it's not a problem that's new to Washington.

Consider that a landline phone at your home never moves - it's always at your physical home address. When a 9-1-1 call comes in, the dispatcher knows where to send emergency help because the address appeared on a screen. But in mobile world - whether on the Virginia portion of the Beltway, the Maryland side of the Metro, the 10th floor of a K Street building or on a Internet phone from a hotel room in San Francisco - pinpointing an exact location was harder to do. The system has improved, with 85 percent of the population living in areas where the dispatch centers can receive callback and location information from a cell phone, according to National Emergency Number Association.

Still, the topic of 9-1-1 is back before Congress, this time as a bill called the IP-Enabled Voice Communications and Public Safety Act of 2007 (S 428). The Federal Communications Commission last addressed 9-1-1 in 2005 when it issued a mandate that Internet phone companies provide 9-1-1 service. But full compliance has hit some roadblocks along the way - and the bill, which was the topic of discussion in a Senate committee hearing earlier this week, tries to address them.

This time around, there's an element of the bill that's generating some support from those who testified this week, such as NENA president Jason Barbour, The bill calls for a plan for migrating from today's 911 system to an Internet-based emergency network where dispatchers not only will receive voice, text, video and multimedia information from a caller but also be able to share it with a variety of devices.

Considering the number of cell phones that have cameras, the many shapes and sizes of phones and how popular text messaging has become, he reasons that it makes sense that the 9-1-1 system would keep up with the times.

"A (next generation) 9-1-1 system is not just a luxury, it is essential," Barbour said. "NENA started with 'One nation - One number' and now we add ' any device, from anywhere, at anytime.' "

By Sam Diaz  |  April 12, 2007; 12:26 PM ET  | Category:  Sam Diaz
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