Understanding the Data Gap in Emergency Response: Evidence from U.S. 911 Agencies

23 Pages Posted: 15 Jul 2020

Date Written: June 23, 2020


Using a combination of data analysis, live field testing, and interviews with 911 centers (hereafter referred to as Public Safety Answering Points, or PSAPs), this paper studies the interaction between alarm systems and first responders using both publicly available data as well as in-person data collection at PSAPs across the country. This data was augmented with a survey of 145 telecommunicators as well as qualitative interviews from PSAP directors.

The results demonstrate a significant information gap between increasingly sophisticated alarm systems and the emergency services responding to their signals for help. Specifically, our testing and survey indicated that nearly all alarms are communicated via phone calls over the public switched telephone network (PSTN), limiting information flow to a verbal conversation between 911 telecommunicators and alarm monitoring center operators. The limitations of this legacy infrastructure often prevent 911 telecommunicators from acquiring enough information to triage and prioritize alarm calls.

This lack of information leads to long PSAP processing time (6-13 minutes) and a proliferation of false alarms which clog first responder systems. Various studies have demonstrated that 90 to 99% of all security alarms are false depending on the municipality. We estimate the total yearly impact on the US emergency response system to be approximately 62 million false alarms at a cost of $3.1B annually.

Unsurprisingly, the lack of information and tendency for false alarms causes most public safety agencies to deprioritize central station alarm calls. This challenge is magnified by the use of 10-digit non-emergency lines for incident reporting. These factors converge to drive a high degree of variability in alarm response times and exacerbate the first responders’ challenges in responding effectively to real alarm emergencies, given limited resources.

Suggested Citation

Foroughi, Cirrus, Understanding the Data Gap in Emergency Response: Evidence from U.S. 911 Agencies (June 23, 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3633580 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3633580

Cirrus Foroughi (Contact Author)

Harvard University ( email )

Cambridge, MA
United States

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