The Path Ahead to Fix Rural 911

Apr 2, 2021

A workgroup formed to research problems in Virginia’s 911 system recommends striving to retain staff and developing plans about how to transition into updated technology.

In a meeting Wednesday, the E-911 Border Response Workgroup reviewed its recommendations that it will make to the General Assembly. The workgroup was created through an amendment to the 2020 budget, by Del David Reid (D-Loudoun).

“With the Emergency 911 Workgroup, there's a recognition that it is really very complex and it does kind of span across people, processes, and technology,” he said. “It's going to take a commitment from the General Assembly, and either the Northam administration or the next administration, to be able to address these underlying issues.”

When a telecommunicator receives a 911 call at a public-safety answering point, they may have to try to reroute the call to a PSAP more adequately suited to dispatch emergency personnel.
Credit City of Roanoke E-911 Center

The workgroup was primarily tasked with understanding why certain 911 calls are not routed to the correct public-safety answering point (PSAP). That can result in a delayed response from first responders, often times when they are directed to an incorrect location. In acute medical emergencies such as heart attacks, trauma, or drownings, the time lost ends up costing lives.

Much of the problem stems from 911 calls placed from cell-phones and technology interacting with the cell-tower rather than a more discrete location.

80% of calls to 911 in Virginia come from mobile phones. When those calls go to a cell tower, it could be across a county or state border, or on the other side of a body of water.

One of the recommendations was for the 911 and Geospatial Services Bureau to create a best practice for telecommunicators who receive an emergency call when another PSAP is better suited for the location of the emergency.

“One of the techniques is that, when you receive a wireless call, it's ‘Where is your emergency?’ not ‘What is your emergency,” said Dorothy Spears-Dean, Bureau Chief for the 911 and Geospatial Services Bureau. “ We want to make sure we're honing in on location first to be able to provide a response as quickly as possible for the situation as it's described to the telecommunicator. You also want to make sure that in the event that a call is perhaps delivered to the wrong 911 center ... you have procedures in place that will enable you to transfer that call to another locality with the information that's needed.”

The workgroup also recommended that the bureau develop a plan to improve wireless location accuracy in Virginia. For example, technologies exist that automatically turn on connectivity in cell phones when that device calls 911. Then the phone pushes Wifi, Bluetooth, and GPS data to a third party that can relay the more detailed location data to PSAPs.

Four localities currently use another digital technology, Next Generation 911, leaving 120 additional deployments for that technology by a statutory deadline of July 1, 2023, Spears-Dean said. She said currently Virginia has nine separate 911 networks as a result of the analog infrastructure.

Wireless carriers will have to update their technology for a statewide system to work, Spears-Dean said.

“There are a number of milestones that carriers need to meet in the next five years in order to be consistent with FCC requirements.”

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.