Not as easy as 9-1-1

Aaron Huff is technology editor of Commercial Carrier Journal.
E-mail ahuff@randallpub.com

When you dial 911 from your home or office phone, your call reaches local police and other emergency responders who can get an immediate fix on your location. But when a driver uses his cell phone to dial 911, it’s by no means a sure thing that the call will find its way to a local authority.

When you consider the notification technology available to drivers and fleets today, this flaw in emergency response is frustrating. Advanced fleet management systems from vendors such as PeopleNet, Qualcomm, Aether and Air IQ, allow drivers to quickly dial 9-1-1 or send “urgent” text messages or press a panic button – an option with Qualcomm’s system – to immediately notify dispatch of emergencies. But then it generally falls to a fleet manager to track down a local authority and provide emergency responders with the location. In many cases, this approach is adequate. But in an age of instant communication, there must be a better way.

Federal and state governments have mulled how to speed response to emergencies in surface transportation, especially in the transportation of hazardous goods. A national monitoring service similar to the Department of Defense Tracking System is one possibility that has been discussed.

Following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, a group of vendors in the fields of asset tracking, vehicle monitoring, and emergency response, organized the Freight Transportation Security Consortium. The consortium’s goals include: establishing communication standards for emergency messages and alerting the first responders of emergency situations in near real-time via a government-subsidized monitoring service. But the prospect of Washington doing “anything of consequence” toward creating a national monitoring system in the next 12 to 18 months is very dim, says Drew Robertson, managing director of the consortium. “The financial resources just aren’t there.”

Without government mandates or subsidies, the private sector can only go so far with its technology and initiatives to create more efficient emergency response. The public sector doesn’t adopt new ideas and technology at the same rate the private sector develops them. The wireless Enhanced 911 (E911) mandate set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1996 is a case in point. The point of E911 is to provide information necessary to locate wireless calls.

Wireless vendors began rolling out the E911 mandate in phases in 1998, says Nextel spokewoman Leigh Horner. Phase I requires vendors to provide a callback number and the location of the cell site the call came from to Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs), the call centers that receive 911 calls.

Nextel has been compliant with Phase I for two years, but only 700 of about 6,000 PSAPs can receive the data today, Horner says. Phase II of E911, mandated recently by the FCC, requires wireless providers to provide the latitude and longitude of a caller’s location. The FCC expects wireless E911 systems, at a minimum, to help operators pinpoint a cell-phone caller’s location to within 100 meters 95 percent of the time by 2005.

Owning a GPS-enabled phone today is no guarantee that a PSAP will know your location, however. “It depends on the ability of a PSAP to receive the data,” Horner says. “[E911] only works in jurisdictions that have that capability.”

To increase the response time from local responders, some fleets already use a third-party, central station monitoring service. Criticom International (www.bestresponse.com), for example, provides emergency and priority dispatch management of response services from local authorities. Criticom can integrate its services into a company’s mobile communications systems based on pre-defined processes, such as which events to contact the fleet, both the fleet and the police, or only the police, says Ray Menard, senior vice president of Criticom.

Because it is possible to improve the speed of emergency response from PSAPs and local authorities today through privately owned central monitoring services, the biggest setback to a nationwide, public or public-private monitoring service is not a lack of technology. Menard notes that the real problem of emergency response is that the majority of trucks on the road today are still not equipped with mobile communications of any kind.