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" display a high degree of creativity and innovation. The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) has worked in collaboration with the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) 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 information below is an overview of the E9-1-1 system and key considerations on issues of impact.

Smartphone Apps and 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 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:

  1. Only 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.
  2. The 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 smart-phone 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.
  3. Most 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, and a resulting need for application developers to understand how these services interact with the E9-1-1 system.
  4. An 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.
  5. The 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.

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 (funding, regulatory etc.) 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, be able to interoperate with the legacy E9-1-1 and the new NG9-1-1 systems in a reliable, seamless manner.

Additional Considerations for Developers

Telecommunicators are tasked with handling each call competently and expeditiously to ensure life safety. 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 atypical tasks such as publishing information to Facebook or accessing third party websites.

Direct Communications with 9-1-1 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:

GPS & 9-1- 1 Location Third Party Services