Heads up! I mention suicide and mental health concerns later in this blog! If that isn’t going to be a helpful thing for you, feel free to skip over the last paragraph of the recommendations!
Honestly, one of the first things I remember learning was my home phone number, my address, and how to call 911 in case of emergencies. As it was defined back in 1960’s when the function was first implemented, people wanted a centralized place to report fires. The US rolled out their system in 1968 and designed the phone number to be most easily dialed on a rotary phone. Since then, the conversation surrounding the use of 911 has evolved significantly. The service is now monitored by several thousand specially trained 911 operators, with calls covering truly every subject. My goal in this blog is to articulate the history and provide some recommendations and food for thought regarding the intended versus the actual use of emergency response services.
Prior to the existence of 911, a person was expected to know the numbers for their local fire department and police station if they were to ever experience a crisis. Honestly reading this, I realized how few numbers I actually know off the top of my head. For me personally, this included my elementary school best friend’s house phone, every home phone number I have ever had, and certainly none of my current emergency services. While I exclusively rely on 911, the roll out for the service took several years to become funded and supported by each municipality. As it currently exists, approximately 98.9% of people have access to use 911 (source) . This was due to the reluctancy to fund it and the mistrust in the service.
911 uses an enhanced program that matches the person’s phone to a specific address, through a database called the Automatic Location Identification alongside a Master Street Address Guide (MSAG). However, this process is used primarily for landlines. For mobile phones, 911 use a combination of radiolocation or GPS from the phone itself. Given the location tracking services generally available on cell phones, this is an easy dual use of the existing technology. With the addition of the Voice Over Internet Protocol (the use of internet and broadband services over traditional phone service) it has become harder to map out the location of callers as they are unable to trace any location. This is a prime example of the government’s inability to regulate this service has prevented any use of this service to enhance access or clarity for 911 callers.
As noted, there are currently gaps in the 911 system. I would recommend increasing access to ensure everyone has access to the emergency services. I would also recommend allowing text messaging or another form of instant written correspondence to eliminate the inevitable miscommunication of addresses and exact street names and enhance access to those who are deaf or hearing impaired. This service is currently available and being tested across the US, but still has glitches and cannot receive pictures or videos.
911 has also become a trusted and reliable service for people who are experiencing any kind of crisis, so it currently received calls for a variety of emergencies. As it currently exists, if a person is experiencing a crisis, we are all taught to call 911 to get help from one of three organizations: Law Enforcement, Emergency Medical Services, or Fire Fighters. Several or the things people call about fall outside of the purview of these services, so it can be difficult to determine who shows up and what their procedure is. Some of these things are responding to people experiencing homelessness, people experiencing a mental health crisis, or even responding to student disciplinary issues in schools.
In the past several years, many public incidents indicated a need for a reexamination of how crisis response is structured and performed in the US. Notably, the presence of law enforcement during what is objectively not safety-related is one example of a gap in expertise as well as being asked to perform a job outside of the traditional role of a police officer. Public officials worked alongside activists and community organizers to assess the current use of the system that alerts crisis response personnel and reallocate specific responsibilities to better serve all populations.
Instead, resources should be allocated to alternative solutions, aimed primarily at prevention and treatment rather than incarceration. One proposed solution is the implementation of 988 alongside 911 as a crisis response hotline. 988 was recommended for use in August 2019 as the national phone number to connect those experiencing mental health crisis and/or suicide ideation with trained counselors rather than law enforcement. I would recommend expanding these services to include a variety of alternatives with the last resort being incarceration, at the recommendation of the LA county working group’s research finds here.
My hope is this is a precursor to my next blog regarding campus crisis on call response, which I serve as a part of!