Public Safety Considerations for Smartphone App Developers
There are an increasing
number of smartphone applications (apps) entering the market that impact public
safety and emergency communications. Many of these new apps are developed with a high
degree of creativity and innovation, but may not fully consider the impacts on
9-1-1 and public safety during the development process.
The National Emergency
Number Association (NENA: The 9-1-1 Association) and the Association of Public-Safety Communications
Officials (APCO) have worked together to provide developers with information on
the Enhanced 9-1-1 (E9-1-1) technical architecture, as well as operational
limitations that may influence the development of smartphone apps.
The below provides an overview of the E9-1-1 system and outlines key issues for consideration by smartphone application developers. Click here to download a PDF copy of this information.
Questions? Pose them on the NENA Smartphone Applications Forum.
Smartphone Apps & Their Relationship to
Enhanced 9-1-1 Service
Enhanced 9-1-1 (E9-1-1)
is the system used by the public in the vast majority of the USA & Canada
to access 9-1-1 centers, also referred to as Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs), during an emergency. A 9-1-1 center is an entity that
receives 9-1-1 calls from a defined geographic area and processes those calls
according to operational policies. The E9-1-1 emergency communications and data
system was designed in the 1970's and has unique limitations as compared to the
current application and Internet environment. Key limitations that app
developers should be aware of are:
voice and a single 8- or 10-digit reference code can be carried with an E9-1-1
call. This 8- or 10-digit code is designed to carry the caller's telephone
number, or a reference number that assists in determining how to route a 9-1-1
call to the appropriate 9-1-1 center. It is important for developers to note
that the 9-1-1 center that a call is routed to may not
be the 9-1-1 center physically closest to the caller. There are jurisdictional
responsibilities, local laws, and geographic relationships that impact the
decision as to where a 9-1-1 call is routed.
public expects that their location will be automatically delivered to the 9-1-1
center any time they call or contact 9-1-1. Data that is resident within
smartphone-type applications, such as the caller’s name, location, or callback
number, cannot currently be delivered with a 9-1-1 call. There are limitations
in the E9-1-1 call delivery networks that prevent this. A limited amount of
critical data, such as location information and telephone callback number, can
be automatically acquired after the voice call is answered at a 9-1-1 center. This
data is obtained from external, standardized databases that contain
pre-processed and pre-validated information. One of the databases involved that
may be familiar to developers is an ALI
(Automatic Location Identification) database. There are still 9-1-1 centers in
the U.S. that do not receive any of this data, due to technology limitations. Not
all public safety agencies are capable of receiving 9-1-1 calls.
9-1-1 Centers currently cannot accept text, pictures, or videos, nor can they receive additional data such as
personal information, medical history, or building floor plans. E9-1-1 uses
different interface techniques for calls from wireline, wireless, and Voice
over Internet Protocol (VoIP), due to forced adaptation of the original E9-1-1
architecture to support the newer caller service types. There are significant
variations in how calls and data are handled among different service types, which results in a need for application developers to understand how these services
interact with the E9-1-1 system.
app that notifies the caller’s family or friends of an emergency situation
should not be viewed as a solution for contacting 9-1-1. Callers that need
emergency services need to contact 9-1-1 directly or there is risk that
emergency services may be significantly delayed.
app must not interfere with the handset’s ability to place a voice 9-1-1 call
to the local authority. If the user makes a 9-1-1 call, some phones will not
allow the user to access any other applications within the phone, such as
texting or video.
Next Generation 9-1-1 and Future Developments
An improved 9-1-1
communications system has been designed based on Internet Protocol (IP), and
it is beginning to be implemented in some areas across the United States. It is
expected that Canada will follow this transitional pattern soon. This new system,
known as Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1), has the capabilities to support
voice, text, video, and additional data. There are many factors (e.g. funding,
regulatory) that impact how and when the new 9-1-1 system will be
available on a large scale. In addition, standards developed in the wireless
carrier environment may affect the timing of certain types of text support. As
a result, NG9-1-1 will likely take 8-10 years to evolve across most of the USA
& Canada. During this transitional period, while the original legacy
E9-1-1 system is still in use, it is imperative that new communications
services or technologies that allow users to speak, text, or otherwise
communicate with others are able to inter-operate with the legacy E9-1-1 and the
new NG9-1-1 systems in a reliable, seamless manner. NENA i3 Solution
Additional Considerations for Developers
tasked with handling each call competently and expeditiously to ensure effective and efficient emergency response. It is important that applications do not adversely affect 9-1-1 center
operations. Developers should become familiar with common 9-1-1 center
workflows and refrain from having their app rely on telecommunicators performing
additional or atypical tasks, such as publishing information to Facebook or
accessing third party websites.
Direct Communications with 9-1-1
The following must be considered in the development of any application proposed to contact or interface with the 9-1-1 system:
developers should be aware of limitations and follow established methods when
routing calls to 9-1-1.
all 9-1-1 centers are equipped to receive location information from wireless
phones and there are some areas in the United States that do not have ubiquitous Enhanced 9-1-1 service. These centers rely solely on the caller-provide location information.
- Application users
should be encouraged to call 9-1-1 directly whenever possible during an emergency, allowing a trained telecommunicator to gather necessary details and
dispatch emergency services.
- Application users should be advised to call 9-1-1 only during an emergency, not for general information or non-emergencies.
centers must take the time to evaluate every call that is presented to
a telecommunicator. In many cases, depending on local agency policy, a telecommunicator
is required to stay on the phone in an open line situation to determine if the
caller has an emergency or not. If the call is disconnected, the telecommunicator
must call the user back to determine if there is an
emergency. This creates additional workload and pulls the telecommunicator away
from callers with actual emergencies.
9-1-1 centers do not have the ability to receive any type of multimedia or
text messaging. Application users should clearly understand that although the app may provide a method to send multimedia or submit a GPS location by email or text, the
majority of 9-1-1 centers will not be able to receive this information.
- 9-1-1 centers are not always able to immediately answer every 9-1-1 call
that is delivered to the center. There is a possibility that a 9-1-1 caller
will be put "on hold” or hear a recording. During times of unusually high call volume, incoming calls may outnumber the 9-1-1 staff. In
these cases, calls may go into a queue that typically provides a recorded message advising the callers that they have reached 9-1-1 and should remain on the line. These
calls are answered in the order in which they are received.
Notifying Friends and Family
App developers should be
aware of several important considerations for applications designed to notify
friends and family of a possible emergency:
contact with 9-1-1 is the most expedient way to guarantee that help will be sent. App
developers should not encourage users to rely on a friend or family
notification feature to obtain help during an emergency.
and family may not be in the same geographic area as the user needing
assistance. If the friend or family member calls 9-1-1 for assistance, there is
a possibility that the call will go to a 9-1-1 center in another state or
jurisdiction. If the user needing assistance is relying on a friend or family
member to call 9-1-1, help will be delayed.
friends and/or family receive a notification, they will likely call 9-1-1 to
obtain information about their loved one. This will unnecessarily prevent telecommunicators
from handling other requests for service.
the event friends and/or family call 9-1-1 in an attempt to obtain information about their loved one, it is likely the telecommunicator will not
be able to provide the information to them. Local privacy laws and internal
agency policies may prevent information being shared.
developers offering to conference friends and/or family into the user’s 9-1-1 call
may impede the telecommunicator’s ability to hear and gather critical information. The more people engaged
in a single conversation, the more difficult it is to get pertinent details. This practice is discouraged.
GPS & 9-1- 1 Location
Many people conserve
battery power on their phones by turning off location services. Developers
should clearly indicate that if a user does not have location services enabled on his or her phone, the app will not provide GPS coordinates. Non-tech-savvy
users will not understand that their phone’s location services must be enabled for 9-1-1 location functionality to work.
Third Party Services
App developers should
clearly advertise whether the app will dial 9-1-1 directly or whether it will
use another method. Calls that dial directly to the digits "9-1-1” typically
take priority over any other phone line. Calls directed to a ten-digit line may
not be answered as promptly. Further, app developers should clearly state
in their marketing description of the product whether a call is going to be
routed to a third party call center to process the emergency request prior to
connecting to a public safety entity. The app developer should also clearly
identify how and/or if the caller will be conferenced to 9-1-1, if necessary.
The third party call center’s abilities should also be identified (e.g. EMS
trained, 9-1-1 center conferencing services provided).
Other factors app developers should take into consideration during the development process:
9-1-1 centers do not provide their telecommunicators access to the Internet for
multiple reasons, primarily related to network and system security. App developers
must be aware that it is not always possible to expect 9-1-1 center personnel
to access information over the Internet.
- It is important to comply with state and federal laws that cover 9-1-1
centers. Laws may prohibit functions such as automated calls delivered
via 9-1-1 trunks to the PSAP without a voice caller. Monetary contribution requirements may
also violate state or local laws and should be reviewed. App developers or users may be
required to pay surcharge fees in some jurisdictions.
an App that allows a user to shake the phone to dial 9-1-1 may increase the
propensity for inadvertent dialing of 9-1-1. This type of functionality is discouraged.
NENA and APCO are ready to assist app developers and distributors in the development of products that meet the needs
of citizens and will work with current and future 9-1-1 systems. For the
most up-to-date information regarding 9-1-1 and for answers to any questions you may have, please visit www.nena.org and www.apcointl.org