Why are location and SDI so important in Next Generation 9-1-1 systems?

April 10, 2017 Gordon Plunkett

Have you ever experienced or witnessed an emergency where assistance was required? For decades, Canadians have depended on phone calls to 9-1-1 for requesting help. But the world is changing, and so is 9-1-1. In the future, you will be able to request emergency services through additional communication channels using Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1) services. Read this blog to find out how important geospatial data is in NG9-1-1.

There is no doubt about Canadians’ need for emergency response systems, especially the 9-1-1 emergency call system. In the early days, a 9-1-1 caller needed to provide their address or geographic location to the emergency dispatcher at the time of the call. This meant that the caller needed to know where they were and be able to inform the dispatcher of their location.

The newer Enhanced 9-1-1 (E9-1-1) system determines the location of the caller based on the phone number of the call. Telecom companies are mandated to keep track of the location of “landline” phones and have the capability of determining the location of mobile phones when necessary. This location information must be kept up to date for each Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP), where E9-1-1 calls are taken and appropriate response is dispatched.

Telecommunication service providers in Canada have made many technological improvements to their networks over the years, and the plan now is to integrate improvements into existing E9-1-1 systems. These improvements will provide Canadians with access to new and innovative emergency call services and capabilities. Currently, the federal government is developing policies on how these enhancements will be implemented. Known as Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1), this initiative will provide more than just voice call support.

The federal Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) regulates the telecommunications carriers which supply the networks needed to direct and connect 9-1-1 calls to dispatch facilities. Emergency responders and dispatch facilities fall within the jurisdiction of provincial, territorial and municipal governments.

The proposed purpose of the NG9-1-1 implementation is to enable the public to make a 9-1-1 communication from any wired, wireless or IP-based device in voice, video, text or data format. Plus, the new system may allow the PSAPs to send pertinent emergency information to  responders. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which is the federal agency responsible for emergency communication services, is currently conducting public consultations on the implementation of NG9-1-1 in Canada.

In the US, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) is responsible for defining, developing and coordinating NG9‐1‐1 as a system and as a service to the public, industry and  public safety entities. Canada is following the NENA NG9-1-1 developments closely for a common solution across North America.

So, what does NG9-1-1 have to do with spatial data infrastructures (SDIs)? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot.

Location information is extremely important for NG9-1-1 for two reasons. First, the caller’s location needs to be determined so that an emergency call can be routed to the correct PSAP.

Secondly, location is needed so that the emergency response team can then be dispatched to the appropriate location. In general, emergency response focuses on two types of locational information: civic address and geographic coordinate.


This map shows the civic address and geographic coordinates in decimal degrees of Esri Canada’s headquarters in Toronto.

Public safety organizations and telecom companies have pretty much sorted out the best ways of determining the location of where an emergency voice call is coming from. This location can then be used to find the correct PSAP and where to dispatch the appropriate response team.

However, IP-based emergency services are a whole new matter because there’s a further separation between the identifiers for an emergency caller and the current location of the caller. New mechanisms are being considered to support static, nomadic and mobile users. The general approach being supported is to determine and acquire location information at the point of origin in the access network.

Mobile or wireless phone locating is performed using the cell site or sector. However, the caller’s location is only as accurate as the device used to record or measure it. Once the location information is determined, it can be used to route the call to the proper PSAP and dispatch responders. However, the location information is only as current and accurate as the records maintained in the database. 

This is where an SDI can play an important role in emergency response systems. Often, each responder organization has their own database of location information. The police, fire and ambulance systems are usually separate and infrequently share information. This means that road locations, buildings and addresses may be different in each system.

An SDI would allow these systems to share one copy of the location data, thus allowing the organizations to focus more on the quality of data as opposed to collecting and maintaining duplicate data.

Example of duplicate road centreline data at an intersection. While all the roads are similar and fit for purpose, one road centreline database, shared via an SDI, would allow agencies to focus more on the quality and currency of the data.

In addition, many non-emergency agencies need and use address location data. These include public works, census, elections, transportation, school buses, mapping, sanitation, water and others. If these agencies were included within the SDI, then they too could share their address data with the emergency service agencies. One database of current, consistent roads, buildings and address locations would go a long way to improving not only emergency services, but many other essential government services as well.

About the Author

Gordon Plunkett

Gordon Plunkett is the Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) Director at Esri Canada. He has more than 30 years of experience in GIS and Remote Sensing in both the public and private sectors. He currently sits as a member of the Community Map of Canada Steering Committee, GeoAlliance Canada Interim Board of Directors, the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) Technical Committee, the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) Committee on Geomatics, the University of Laval Convergence Network Advisory Committee and the Advisory Board to the Carleton University Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre. During his career, Gordon has worked on projects in more than 20 countries and has contributed to numerous scientific conferences and publications. At Esri Canada, he is responsible for developing and supporting the company’s SDI vision, initiatives and outreach, including producing content for the SDI blog.

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