September 2011

The Nation Reviewed

Triple zero’s emergency

By Christine Kenneally
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Why dialling ‘000’ may not save your life

A few years ago in Terrey Hills, NSW, a man stumbled upon the collapsed body of a jogger who had had a heart attack. He called triple zero, but wasn’t sure exactly where he was. The first four minutes of a heart attack are critical for survival. Yet, because it was so hard to pin down the jogger’s location, it took an hour for emergency services to find him. The man died.

Twenty years ago, virtually all triple zero calls were from landlines, meaning the caller was necessarily in the location where the phone was registered. Address information was automatically passed through to dispatchers, and emergency services easily found the caller. Now, Telstra fields about 8 million triple zero calls every year, passing on more than 5 million to emergency services, of which 3.2 million are from mobile phones. But when you dial ‘000’ from a mobile phone, there is no fixed location information.

It’s one of the weird and unforeseen consequences of this age of frenetic, multi-channel communication; the proliferation of ways to connect – mobile phones, internet-based phones, in-car communications and location-based apps – mean it’s possible for pretty much anyone to know where you are at all times, except for emergency services. While there are some horror stories about callous dispatchers, the risk is greater that callers simply can’t be found. It makes you wonder whether triple zero is prepared for your next emergency, let alone Australia’s next disaster.

To complicate calls further, as the distance between caller and dispatcher has widened, so has the gap between the expectations of the public and the capability of the service. When I asked Chris Beatson, the chair of the National Emergency Communications Working Group, about mobile triple zero calls, he said, “People watch CSI and they assume we know where they are, but we don’t.”

Dispatchers must ask callers what their location is. It sounds simple, and most of the time it works. The problem, said Beatson, is that when people call triple zero they are inevitably stressed, which makes it harder for them to describe where they are.

What happens if callers are tourists, children, have a disability of some kind, are alone on a highway or hiding from a nearby assailant? Emergency services must contact the phone carrier, who will locate the phone’s signal using nearby mobile towers and provide a rough location for the call. That area may be a few square metres in a city CBD, but the further out and more remote the location, the larger the area. So in a situation where every second counts, what used to be instantaneous, now takes time.

Telstra is developing technology that will provide emergency services with automatic mobile location information but this will still be far from exact.

Still, mobile phones aren’t even the biggest problem. Dialling ‘000’ from an internet service, otherwise known as voice-over internet protocol (VoIP), makes locating the caller even trickier. At least 10% of all triple zero calls are VoIP, but Telstra suspects the number is higher. Some VoIP calls carry a special code that enables dispatchers to identify them, but not all providers use the code. I spoke to Mark Whybro, chair of the Triple Zero Awareness Work Group, who described a call to Fire and Rescue NSW from a fire alarm monitoring company. It looked like the call was from a local landline, but it turned out that address was for the Sydney office of the monitoring company. Meanwhile, the fire alarm was going off somewhere else, and the call – which was VoIP – was coming from New Zealand.

It took NSW police an hour to find a recent triple zero caller, the victim of domestic violence, because she was in someone else’s house and didn’t know the address. In addition, although she had picked up what looked like an ordinary landline, the phone service was VoIP.

There’s a question whether the millennium generation even understands that triple zero is voice-only. The emergency number community in the United States talks a lot about students at Virginia Tech in 2007, who were hiding from a gunman and texted ‘911’ because they needed to be quiet. But you can’t send a text to ‘911’. In Adelaide in 2009, two young girls trapped in a stormwater drain did not dial ‘000’; instead they updated their Facebook status with smart phones. A friend saw the updates and called triple zero. The girls were rescued.

Fortunately, some solutions have emerged naturally from the new technologies that cause so much trouble in this area. During the Queensland floods, there was a huge surge in triple zero callers requesting information. The Queensland Police Service tried to redirect that additional load to the web so that triple zero callers in immediate danger were more likely to get through. They pumped constant updates and ‘mythbuster’ alerts onto their Facebook page, receiving 39 million hits over one 24-hour period. Since the Victorian bushfires, triple-zero organisations have developed an ‘emergency alert’ system to send text or voice messages to citizens about imminent danger.

Despite these innovations, Australia’s emergency-call technology is behind that of many countries. Solutions pursued elsewhere include systems that enable emergency callers to transmit images. “If we could see the colour of smoke at a fire, or a label at a chemical spill,” Whybro told me, “it could reduce response time greatly.” For over a decade, Beatson’s group has lobbied the Australian Communications and Media Authority to plan for the future of the triple zero service. But the regulatory body has no serious strategy for next generation technology or location improvement. The US government in 2008 allocated $43.5 million to upgrade the ‘911’ service. But Telstra is reportedly reluctant to develop technology for triple zero images, and as far as next generation location improvement goes, the Australian government has allocated $000.

Christine Kenneally

Christine Kenneally is the author of The Ghosts of the Orphanage and is now writing a book about the orphanage experience for Public Affairs and Hachette Australia. She has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Slate and New Scientist.

@chriskenneally

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