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NG9-1-1: A game changer in public safety

The incorporation of text, social media, video, pictures and non-human interfaces to 9-1-1 calls is going to revolutionize emergency response service delivery. The next generation 9-1-1 is expected to save more lives; and, GIS systems and services are a core function of that formula. Holly Barkwell shares her expertise in this post.

In our previous post, Holly Barkwell* had mentioned that next generation 9-1-1 would change the public safety industry in many ways. This time, I’ve invited Holly to explain how GIS will be leveraged by NG9-1-1 and thereby, play a key role in saving lives.

Over to Holly Barkwell.


Next generation 9-1-1 is indeed a grand leap forward in technology and operation for 9-1-1 service worldwide. To begin, however, I need to provide some background on the existing/legacy 9-1-1 network. Legacy 9-1-1 is based on an analog network designed to deliver landline (or fixed line) voice calls to a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP), also known as an Emergency Communication Centre (ECC).

When a landline 9-1-1 call is placed, a series of queries are performed in the phone carrier network to determine, amongst several things, the civic address of the caller and the responding police, fire and ambulance agencies for that civic address. A similar query is also performed against a Master Street Address Guide (MSAG) database to determine the appropriate PSAP for that civic address. These queries are performed against non-spatial databases. At the end of these lookups, the call–along with derived subscriber data and other identifying information from the carrier–is transmitted to the PSAP/ECC, where the civic address is typically verified and interpolated against a street centreline network.

Adding mobile technology to this civic address-based process has proven to be problematic for 9-1-1, as wireless 9-1-1 calls do not relate directly to a civic address. So how does the legacy 9-1-1 network “find” a wireless 9-1-1 caller? This is done through a process called triangulation, which determines wireless caller location based on proximity between known cell tower locations. Triangulation is slow and based on an estimated location, which varies in accuracy depending on physical location and carrier technology.

Landline subscriptions continue to drop at a rate of 7-8 percent a year. According to CRTC statistics, in 2018, 67 percent of Canadians owned a landline subscription (down 7 percent from 2016) and 88 percent owned at least one mobile device with a cellular plan. As the mobile device market continues to expand, ‘location’ of a caller will often not be a traditional civic address; therefore, ancillary mapping information needs to be available to the PSAP /ECC call-taker to confirm the location. Data such as orthophotography and satellite imagery will become increasingly helpful.

Since the 9-1-1 industry has been doing a fantastic job with public education programs instilling the idea that anyone from anywhere can call 9-1-1 from any device, Canadians are beginning to expect it; so, it’s time to deliver on that promise!Heck, if Uber and Skip The Dishes can know precisely where a caller is, why can’t 9-1-1?!?

So, what does this mean for GIS systems and services? Today, and for a while yet, delivery of NG9-1-1 calls will

  • require defined PSAP response polygons and use of an MSAG;
  • consist of structured datasets (for example, road networks and addressing); and
  • require mapping applications or solutions that include an integrated mapping component (for example, in Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) System) for dispatching, emergency response and other public safety applications.

But here’s the game changer:

In NG9-1-1, routing of calls to 9-1-1 will be GIS-based instead of the current tabular MSAG method. This change won’t happen immediately, but once implemented–when a 9-1-1 call for help is initiated–the location information may be delivered as X/Y (and maybe Z (elevation)) coordinates for mobile devices and civic address plus X/Y coordinates for landlines. The ability to deliver GIS coordinates for landlines will depend on 9-1-1 service providers to deliver the capability. This evolution will allow improvements in location accuracy technology to be deployed more efficiently and operationalized as they become available. And, as wireless location accuracy improves, CAD technology will need to include address point data in addition to street centreline data.

Sounds complicated? You bet!

Soon, the legacy analog networks for transport of 9-1-1 calls will be replaced by the Emergency Services Internet Protocol Network (ESInet). This “network of networks” will mean faster delivery of calls and information to agencies providing 9-1-1 service. More efficient call transport mechanisms and enhanced tools for PSAPs/ECCs, in turn, translate to faster emergency response. Delivering GIS coordinates rather than a location interpolated from an address range significantly improves the ability to locate all callers–whether they are on a large campus, or in rural or non-addressed areas, including waterways. 

Faster delivery + more accurate location information = faster response times!!

Going forward, NG9-1-1 will benefit from the following:

  • address points (in addition to street centreline address ranges);
  • additional transportation features (for example, trails, ferry routes, resource and unassumed roads, and hiking trails);
  • infrastructure features such as pipelines and railways or highway markers; and
  • coordinated spatial data management

Finally, with NG9-1-1 being IP-based, the ability to readily incorporate existing, new and yet to be determined technologies for making a 9-1-1 call for service is another game changer for public safety. The incorporation of potential inputs such as text, social media, video, pictures and non-human interfaces (Internet of Things or IoT) will revolutionize emergency response service delivery.

In short, NG9-1-1 is expected to save more lives; and, GIS systems and services are a core function of that formula. As the carriers’ use of GIS for geo-based routing and location validation evolves, and the public safety agencies and responders begin relying more heavily on mapping and other location tools for dispatch, vehicle routing and situational awareness, the level of detail and precision will matter. It will matter a LOT.

*Holly Barkwell, President and CEO of BH Group Inc., and the Canadian Region Director of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). With more than 25 years of experience working with public safety agencies, Holly is an active participant in national and regional regulatory working group subcommittees and is working hard to promote NG9-1-1 operations and policy planning in Canada.

Please pass our material along, comment, or ask questions. This series of articles/blog posts is meant to be interactive and a platform for an ongoing discussion related to NG9-1-1 for public safety. Email to discuss more with David Hamilton or Holly Barkwell.

About the Author

David Hamilton is the Public Safety Industry Manager for Esri Canada. His efforts are focused on advising customers how to use GIS technology to improve all areas of public safety, specifically (NG)9-1-1, law enforcement, fire services, emergency medical services, emergency management, and search and rescue. Prior to joining Esri Canada in 2010, David managed the GIS for E-Comm 9-1-1 in Vancouver, and worked for the RCMP at the Integrated Security Unit for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games where he managed their Common Operating Picture. Being active has been a major part of David’s personal life; soccer, track & field, skiing, cycling, hiking and now kayaking are all among his favourite activities.

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