How might we design resilient 911 systems to protect vulnerable populations during natural disasters?
As the world becomes increasingly urbanized, with an estimated 70% of the world’s population projected to reside in urban areas by 2050, cities are becoming more and more vulnerable to natural and manmade disasters . Damages from hurricanes or earthquakes are amplified by the infrastructural needs of large populations, and are further exacerbated by failure to deliver time-sensitive aid due to antiquated emergency response technology. With the increasing prevalence of natural and manmade disasters, cities are left facing economic, infrastructural, and logistical challenges of unprecedented scale. In just 2017 alone, the U.S. suffered $306 billion in economic losses from natural disasters.,
Amongst the many aspects of daily life disrupted before, during, and after large-scale catastrophes, our research uncovered a dire shortcoming in the ability of 911 emergency call centers to meet caller demand during these disasters. During Hurricane Harvey, 911 call centers experienced a 900% surge in the peak daily call volume, going from 8,000 calls to 80,000 calls within a 24-hour period, a spike emergency operation centers were far from being equipped to handle which left people on hold for over 45 minutes at a time.,
While 911 currently handles 240 million calls a year, much of its technological foundation still relies on technologies from the 60s, during the heyday of the Bell telephony system, and is subsequently poorly equipped to handle modern disaster relief efforts. Given resource constraints, even in times of normalcy, it would only take a few callers to overwhelm a region’s emergency communications centers and deny an entire area of emergency services. Public safety announcements have been successful in training people to use 911 services, and many people believe that 911 dispatchers can locate the caller, even during silent or distressed calls. However, the system is only designed to locate calls placed over landlines, even though 80% of calls are now made from mobile devices. As a result, most calls have inaccurate location data, sometimes with deadly consequences caused by delays: the FCC estimates approximately 10,000 lives could be saved from improved location identification and the resulting faster response times.