911 in the Age of Sexy Services

We’re in an age of sexy services: Instagram makes photos sexy, Uber/Lyft make getting a cab sexy, Trunk Club makes your man look sexier (😉).

911 emergency service calls aren’t sexy — they are terrifying. It’s a background system that doesn’t really come to our conscious minds until we are faced with a crisis. And, when we do interact with it, we’re faced with life or death.

A few days ago, I heard a rerun of the Dianne Rehm’s show, “Why The Country’s 911 Emergency Call System Needs An Upgrade.” Unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised to hear how such a complex system was being neglected.

As a service designer working in the tech industry, I’m always trying to help clients and my colleagues to understand how user experience (UX) represents not just end users, but the entire system.

911 is more than a telephone number, it’s a system of people and technology that work together during emergencies to direct resources and expertise where it’s needed. The service can’t help you until 911 knows you need help, but it has to respond at a moment’s notice.

Old Systems vs. New(er) User Behavior

Panelists on the show revealed that the call routing and ID system has failed to keep up with modern consumer technologies; the system is so far behind the times that it means big costs and infrastructure changes to upgrade.

As consumers moved to mobile phones (70% of 911 call volume now comes from mobile phones), the ability to pinpoint a caller’s location became more difficult for operators working on equipment designed for landlines. On top of that, the caller is in a stressful situation and may not know where they are; so it’s not as simple as asking someone, “Where is your emergency?”

Call centers need upgrades to handle information like GPS, texts, photos and videos that give operators information they need to diagnose the situation. Even the switches that determine where calls get routed before being answered need to be upgraded, and companies like Verizon have no interest in footing the costs (according to the show’s panelists).

The Other Problems Impacting 911

This might seem like a simple fix: upgrade the call centers and equipment. On the show, it took until nearly the end of the episode to reveal that there’s more than one crack in the system.

  • The governance and funding for 911 services are almost 50 years old — as old as the equipment sitting in some call centers. The panelists, in particular, are seeking law changes and fund allocations to support upgrade costs.
  • Shifting to internet-based protocols (the future of all communication systems) will require new methods — like batteries, generators or some new invention — to keep the power on during prolonged emergencies.
  • Tracking and reporting apps, while well intentioned, aren’t meeting standards needed by authorities yet. They serve as complements to the overall system, but the system needs to learn from the best apps out there (of which there are few).
  • With Verizon no longer claiming responsibility for upgrading current technology, there’s a need to initiate new public-private partnerships that upgrade and deliver the technology. Municipalities shouldn’t be in the business of managing internet networks, but who will?
  • All of this hinges on the fact that there’s responders to step into action for calls. And, there’s a shortage of first responders already.

Bringing Sexy Back to 911

911 can be a sexy service, but maybe not how you might expect through innuendo-laden ads or interfaces for drooling Apple fans.

A great service just works — seeming to by magic make the right things happens. Enhanced 911 offers some magic, but next generation 911 requires so much more than that:

How might we fund emergency services so they can continually improve and are universally accessible?

How might we design the technology infrastructure so we can upgrade and change over time?

How might we get responders to the scene faster and more efficiently, optimizing their limited time and resources?

This is a complex problem, so it would be unfair for me to propose solutions so quickly. By knowing the right questions to ask and considering the whole system, we can create long-term strategies that help companies decide on the right short-term experiments/tactics. Sticking on band-aids won’t solve the problem if the rest of the system is a mess.

Because, let’s face it, band-aids definitely aren’t sexy.