During the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech on Apr. 16, 2007, that left 33 dead, some students hiding in classrooms tried to send text messages to 911 operators to relay information without attracting the gunman's attention. The messages never got there, because 911 call centers can't receive texts—or photos, videos, or anything other than phone calls. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski cited the case in a speech last fall about the need to digitize these very analog systems.
Upgrading 911 systems for the digital age requires the coordination of local authorities, telecom companies, and Darrin J. Reilly. He's chief operating officer of Cassidian Communications, which makes software that 911 attendants use to identify callers' locations and dispatch responders. Reilly says about 70 percent of 911 calls in the U.S. go through Cassidian systems; Los Angeles, Houston, and Chicago are some of his bigger customers.
A handful of cities are now expanding the capabilities of their 911 systems with Cassidian's help. In April, public safety officials in the Houston area began a program to allow hearing-impaired people who register their accounts to send text messages to 911. Emergency texting may be available to the broader public in 2012. After that, the ability to send photos and videos to 911 operators could be a reality as well, says Stan Heffernan, chief operations officer for the Greater Harris County 911 district, which includes Houston. A trial under way in Los Angeles allows dispatchers to receive images from smartphones.
Cassidian's latest software gives call-takers tools to manage such incoming data. Screens used by operators can display text and video alongside callers' numbers and locations, and the information is archived for investigators in addition to emergency 911 calls. In the future, 911 networks could have access to building floor plans, information about hazardous materials on site, or live security video, Reilly says. They'll also let call centers with extra capacity handle the load of another jurisdiction during peak times, or take over other facilities' operations entirely when disaster strikes. "When the next hurricane hits, if the call center goes down, the next county over will be able to very gracefully step in," says Trey Forgety, director of government affairs for the National Emergency Number Assn., a trade group for 911 operators and vendors.
Reilly has made a career out of using high tech to improve public safety. In the early 1990s at Motorola (MOT), he helped equip first responders with computer-aided dispatch systems that track and guide emergency vehicles. He later led Motorola's biometrics business, which makes technology used by law enforcement to match fingerprints to databases. Two years ago, he joined Cassidian, a division of EADS, the European conglomerate that also owns Airbus. He says many 911 call centers are now investing in broadband networks. "That enables you to get beyond just voice," Reilly says. "Voice simply will be an application, a digital transmission coming in."
A new generation of police, firefighters, and medics should have no trouble adapting to the new technology. "If you look at the individuals coming out of the academy, they've grown up with the Internet," says Reilly, 45. "They're like, 'I need more access to data, data, data.'" Reilly's goal is to arm first responders with tools sophisticated enough for all the ways information travels today and robust enough to work in the worst circumstances. "You don't want to have systems that are unreliable during a time of need," he says.
Dispatchers in Los Angeles and the Houston area are using Cassidian's text and data 911 systems.
17 years at Motorola getting emergency responders and investigators wired.
MBA from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.