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.
Barbour also serves as the 911 director for Johnston County, N.C., southeast of Raleigh, the first county in the state to adopt Phase II. "Our operators no longer had to go through the pain of having to listen to the tragedy going on when they couldn't find the location of the call."
Internet phone service has also changed the landscape for 911 centers. Voice Over Internet Protocol sends voice signals over a broadband signal, and as a result, 911 service isn't the same as landlines.
According to the Vonage, one of the largest providers of VoIP service, customers must fill out a form stating the street address where the service will be used. When a customer makes a 911 call, the center covering the address provided to Vonage will be notified.
There are some issues with the service, however. If the call center in question isn't able to receive the caller's phone number and address, the operator won't be able to determine the call's origin.
If a local call center can't be reached, the call will go to a national emergency center run by Vonage. The center requires the caller to be able to speak to the operator to provide information about the situation and the caller's location, which isn't always possible during an emergency.
"The average consumer generally has no idea what the limitations [of VoIP] are in terms of 911 service," said Patrick Halley, NENA's government affairs director.
And consumers might not always have 911 service at the front of their minds when making the decision to switch to a different type of service, forgoing a traditional landline. "They think, 911 is for other people, I'm not ever going to need it, but when they need it, they'll want the system to work," he said.
Close to 10 percent of U.S. callers rely on wireless as their primary phone -- that's expected to rise to 23 to 37 percent by 2009, according to a NENA report. The number of VoIP users, currently around 8 million, is projected to jump to more than 27 million in the next two years.
Congress has in the last decade passed two pieces of legislation meant to deal with the advancing technology. In 1999, legislation mandated 911 as the official emergency phone number and required the FCC to work with states to push advanced service.
Five years later, Congress authorized the creation of a coordination office within the federal government and a funding system allowing $250 million per year for programs and grants. That system has yet to receive funds, though Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, introduced a bill that aims to appropriate $43.5 million.
Currently, a bill introduced by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., seeks to bring VoIP service into the fold and further examine the infrastructure needs of the emergency response system. NENA supports the bill.
"We just want Congress to help us live up to the public's expectation that when they call that three-digit number, they get someone on the other end," said Halley.