BY ANTHONY MAIER
It happens far too often, and sometimes the consequences are tragic. Dispatch receives a 911 call from someone in an office building or other large facility. Personnel arrive on-scene but can’t find the exact location of the problem in the complex. The address might be a downtown high-rise, a sprawling campus, or a cavernous manufacturing plant; each presents firefighters with unique, potentially formidable emergency response challenges.
If you are fortunate, the caller will provide his exact location in the building, a coworker or security guard on the scene may direct responders to it, or the alarm system on-site can pinpoint the location.
But what if this on-scene intelligence is unavailable and the site is a multistory, densely populated structure? Since about 10 percent of all 911 calls originate from offices or public facilities, it’s likely you’ve encountered this situation before. Locating the emergency and possible victims are your first tasks on the scene, and you don’t want to waste time.
More businesses, schools, and government agencies are equipping their phone systems to relay precise location data automatically—”Rm. 618, 6th floor, NW corner”—for 911 calls. Enhanced 911 (E-911) data help ensure a successful response. Specific location details, such as the 911 caller’s name, phone number, office, and floor location, can be transmitted automatically when the call is made, without the caller saying a word. In a large campus setting or at a business with multiple facilities connected by the same phone system, 911 dispatchers can get the correct building address for a fire or medical emergency instead of just the address of the main phone system.
Knowing the exact location of the emergency reduces uncertainty and the possibility of injury and structural damage and increases the chances for success.
An E-911-equipped office telephone system is configured to relay precise location data from any wired phone on the property. Businesses can build and maintain their own internal station-location database or hire one of the growing number of outside experts to do the work. Doing it themselves requires a lot of labor and ongoing maintenance. Also, the local public safety answering point (PSAP) must be equipped to accept wireline E-911 calls, which is the case for the vast majority of PSAPs.
The wireless network is still playing catch-up to have the same capabilities. But if the 911 caller has to use a cell phone, some cell phone providers also offer E-911 calling capabilities that provide E-911 dispatchers with location data, just not as specific as what’s available with a wireline-based E-911 system.
Generally, the more telephone systems or PBXs involved, the more involved the set-up process. With about one-third of workers relocating in any given year, institutions have to ensure their internal station-location databases are accurate. Emergency responders don’t want to show up at the wrong place because the person changed offices and the company database wasn’t updated.
Most institutions, particularly larger organizations with frequent personnel movement, prefer to purchase software or hardware that connects with their existing facilities and provides E-911 data to emergency personnel. Some vendors offer solutions that are fully automated, tapping into information already in the current systems. Once each phone line is tagged with its detailed location data, the system automatically updates the information.
A full-service call management solution continuously updates automatic number identification (ANI) and automatic location information (ALI) so the location data provided to the PSAP is current. In exchange, it offers a lifetime of protection for the property and its employees and the local emergency services responders.
Business leaders recognize the value of corporate security and emergency preparedness, especially after the World Trade Center attacks. The increasing incidence of workplace violence and sabotage exacerbates the problem.
TRAGEDY AND LIABILITY
Protecting property and people (including rescuers) is one motivation for installing E-911; avoiding damaging wrongful death litigation or public fines because of noncompliance is another. Courts have found shareowners and individual managers personally liable for safety negligence. When an ambulance was slow in responding to a heart attack victim, a jury awarded the family of the victim $50 million in a wrongful death suit.
An incident at Navistar International underscores E-911’s life-saving potential. When a disgruntled worker shot four co-workers, a grief-stricken employee used a company phone to call 911. Police and other emergency services personnel knew the exact location within the building from which the call was placed because the company had an E-911 system. Police arrived within minutes and knew precisely where to respond without the caller telling them.
Getting to the right location quickly is critical. If the shooter had heard the 911 caller at Navistar, the caller’s life could have been in jeopardy. Thankfully, it wasn’t. The same holds true for rescuers who know where the problem is located and can be better prepared to respond.
At some organizations, telephone systems are configured so that any 911 call from the premises is directed to the security department, not the 911 public safety agency. Such organizations should reconfigure their systems for E-911 so security officials can assist the victim and stabilize the work environment instead of focusing on getting outside help.
One highly publicized case involved Chicago firefighters and a businesswoman working late one night in a Chicago high-rise office building. A fire broke out on the 21st floor, where she was working alone, and spread quickly. Unable to exit because of the dense smoke, she repeatedly called 911 for help, disoriented about her exact location on the floor. The firefighters knew the victim was on the 21st floor but not exactly where. They found her after an hour-long search, but it was too late.
In the wake of the tragic death in Chicago, Illinois enacted an E-911 law affecting every commercial and government enterprise that occupies large spaces. Since the law became effective three years ago, hundreds of businesses in the state have upgraded their telecom systems to provide station-location data to 911 dispatchers.
Similar laws have been passed or are being considered in more than a dozen states. The Federal Communications Commission is considering a nationwide mandate that if adopted could prompt far greater E-911 availability throughout the United States. The agency is considering requiring E-911 capabilities for 911 calls from sites that present a unique location-identification challenge and for wireline calls originating from the typical office phone system.
Although some argue that such laws may not provide enough specificity on what’s required or that the consequences for noncompliance aren’t tough enough, the legislation is raising E-911 awareness. Broader interest is spurring wider adoption, thus helping firefighters to more effectively protect property and people, including themselves.
The impact in corporate circles has been profound, though much work and wider adoption opportunities remain. Said one Fortune 500 telecom leader in suburban Chicago who installed an E-911 call management system in her corporate campus to help protect more than 7,000 workers in eight different buildings: “You enter the situation thinking about compliance and liability, but then you come out of the situation with a good feeling knowing that you will have helped save a life or head off a tragedy.”
Supporting Greater E-911 Adoption
Firefighters can help increase awareness of the need for E-911 in their communities by doing the following:
- Add E-911 to your fire marshal’s checklist, particularly in states with E-911 laws. For a rundown of these laws, go to www.enhanced911.com.
- Businesses must clearly identify their internal locations for 911 dispatchers. The encoded location data should be easy to understand (e.g., “6th fl., NW corner”).
- In large or densely populated buildings in your response area, consider running test calls to ensure that you can respond quickly and accurately to the emergency site based on the information given before it’s too late. Coordinate with your local PSAP.
- Make sure your municipal buildings are E-911 ready. Contact your city or county telecom department.
- If it’s difficult to identify a 911 caller’s exact location in an office setting, inform the company of the existence of E-911 and how it could prevent a recurrence of this problem. Encourage it to install the system.
- Firefighters can have enormous influence on lawmakers. Contact state and federal elected officials and urge them to support government legislation on this topic.
- For more information on E-911 for office phone systems, including white papers and E-911 optimization documents, go to www.enhanced911.com.
ANTHONY MAIER is president and CEO of Chicago, Illinois-based RedSky Technologies, which helps institutions equip their phone systems with E-911 call handling capabilities.