Dialing three familiar numbers -- 911 -- often opens the first line of communication between those in need and the responders who help them. An estimated 200 million of these calls are placed each year.
But technology available to those on the scene of an accident or disaster is often more advanced than the technology at the response center receiving the 911 call. That divide often prevents call centers from pinpointing the location of the caller.
"It doesn't matter how bad the house is burning or how bad the child is choking, if we can't find you we can't send help," said Jason Barbour, the acting president of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), which lobbies to improve 911 services.
"Back in the original days of 911, you called in and they had the hard location of that call," Barbour said, referring to the 1970s and 1980s, when land lines tied to a single address were the only available means for making an emergency call. "Now, potentially you have any call coming in...where you don't know exactly the location of the call."
This is due to the rise of Internet calling and the explosion of cell phones, which now account for one-third to one-half of all emergency calls.
Public safety officials and consumer-technology firms are heading to Capitol Hill Tuesday to continue talks about moving forward at a hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
"The 911 centers are based on technology that was developed 20 to 30 years ago. They don't have the luxury of walking outside and picking up the latest technology," said Barbour. "It is important that we invest in a 911 system that does more than meet today needs, it should meet the needs of tomorrow and the future."
The newer technology available to consumers could help emergency personnel pinpoint and respond to emergencies, Barbour said. This includes crash notification from a vehicle equipped with a navigation program like OnStar and biochemical sensor data from public transportation systems. In addition, emergency centers would benefit from instant access to security video or cell phone photos identifying a criminal on the run, and text messages from the hearing impaired.
"The data is available, but the 911 system is simply not equipped to receive it, much less seamlessly share the data with appropriate emergency response agencies," Barbour observed in his prepared testimony.
At the most basic level of 911 service, emergency call centers are able to identify the location of the caller, provided he or she dials 911 from a landline phone.
The Federal Communications Commission has outlined two phases to boost 911 capability. Phase I allows emergency call centers to identify the phone number used by a wireless caller, but doesn't have the capability to display an exact location of the call.
Phase II systems let call centers also pinpoint a wireless caller's location. As of Dec. 31, 2005, all new consumer wireless phones are required to be Phase II compliant, and about 85 percent of Americans are now served by call centers that employ the Phase II technology. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have fully implemented Phase II technology.