Category Archives: APCO

When Alexa Calls 911 …

alexa-call-911CES, formerly the Consumer Electronics Show, recently concluded in Las Vegas.  Alexa conquered the show (Wired), and seemed to be everywhere (Fast Company).  Alexa is, of course, the voice-activated digital assistant developed by Amazon, headquartered in Seattle.

Alexa has a long and growing list of commands ranging from “Alexa Shut Up” to “Alexa Give me a Game of Thrones Quote” to skills commands like “Alexa Ask Lyft for a Ride” which enables a specific skill written by Lyft to engage their car-sharing service.

Alexa is being married with a new generation of “smart devices”.   So if your light bulbs are smart enough, Alexa can control them (“Alexa, turn off the lights in the bedroom”).  If your garage door is smart enough, Alexa can open it.   Audio equipment.  Smart phones.  Even cars (Ford is building Alexa into its vehicles) will have Alexa controls.  Indeed, Shelly Palmer, a long-time observer of CES, says “anything which can be connected, will be connected” to Alexa.

But what happens when you say “Alexa, call 911”?

Right now, of course, nothing.   Alexa cannot use the telephone, or make a phone call.   But, it can – and does – send data and your voice across the Internet to the Amazon cloud.  And, as Amazon develops Alexa’s expertise, it is only a matter of time until such a “call 911” skill is built.

The Bright Side of Alexa 911 Calls

Anyone who has been a victim of a crime understands the potential for using Alexa to call 911.  Someone breaks into your house, and you fumble to find a phone and fumble to unlock it and then punch in 911.   But Alexa is “always on, always listening”.  You simply say “Alexa, call 911”.

But then what happens?   Does Alexa “keep the line open” so you can talk to the 911 operator?  What if you have to leave the room or get out of Alexa’s range as you retreat into a closet or try to find the burglar?   Should an individual Alexa device in one room automatically activate all the other Alexa devices (Echo, Dot, Tap, Firestick etc.) everywhere in the house and put them on the line with the 911 operator?

ng911-2020Alexa will soon be able to control video cameras and audio devices throughout the house.  Should “Alexa call 911” automatically activate all such devices?   Should it connect them to digital recorders or maybe automatically connect them all to the 911 center so the operator can hear and see what is going on? (Of course 911 centers can’t receive video right now, but with Next Generation 911 that capability will become available, eventually.)

FirstNet will be deploying a nationwide cellular network for first responders and their smart phones, mobile and tablet computers.   With FirstNet, responding officers could actually connect, as they are responding, with such inputs – video cameras and Alexa devices, so officers could hear and see what is happening inside the house.

2017 CES - Ford offers Amazon AlexaThere will also be Alexa-enabled vehicles.   Could an Alexa-enabled vehicle become somewhat “self aware”, so it might detect that it is being hotwired – that its owner is not present, and call 911 to alert police of the crime-in progress?    Or perhaps the car would detect that its windows are being broken, activate tiny video cameras around the car, and also, with Alexa, alert the 911 center to that car prowl in progress.

But some 911 emergencies are not crimes, but a fire.   The urgency of a quick connection to 911 is underscored in a fire, as people need to call 911 and get out of the premise quickly.   Alexa-capable devices will eventually connect to fire alarms and sensors in the house.   Perhaps, eventually, people will also have sensors in their clothes so Alexa could also precisely locate people inside a house.  These devices will eventually have GPS beacons so their locations are precisely known.  All of this information could be available to responding firefighters so they could see the location of the fire and potentially the location of every human being and pet inside the home, invaluable information for saving lives in the first few seconds after firefighters arrive.

Many 911 calls are medical emergencies – diabetic shock or a heart attack or a stroke or a fall.  Again, Alexa will be invaluable in summoning aid.  An elderly neighbor of ours recently fell out of bed and shattered her femur.   She slowly, painfully, crawled to a phone to call us (and we called 911).  But with Alexa, all she would have to say is “Alexa, call 911” and she’d be immediately connected to aid.

Again, biosensors are being embedded in humans today and this trend will continue.  Heart pacemakers, insulin pumps, glucose monitors, blood pressure monitors are all devices we attach to our bodies to monitor our health.  These devices could eventually be controlled by Alexa, or at least send information to Alexa, which would establish a history and pattern which could be invaluable to the paramedic responding to 911 calls.     With “Alexa call 911” plus FirstNet all of that information could be sent to emergency medical technicians and emergency room physicians at hospitals before the Medic unit even leaves the station.

In fact, the potential for such live-saving applications could, eventually, lead to a mandate that all voice-activated digital assistants in a home must have the capability to call 911 just as today every cell phone – even if you haven’t paid the bill in years – are mandated to connect 911 calls to a public safety answering point.

The Dark Side of Alexa 911 Calls

Just as Alexa’s potential for saving lives and solving crimes through 911 calling is the “bright side”, there is also a “dark side” of enabling this capability.

911-center-seattleThe most immediate effect will be on understaffed 911 centers.  The sheer number of 911 calls will rise.   The quality of the calls may also drop as people try to talk to their voice enabled devices as they move from room-to-room, making it hard for 911 operators to hear and interact with the caller.   In fact, many Alexa-based 911 calls may become the equivalent of a “911 hang up” call today, where officers are dispatched out of concern that domestic violence or another crime is occurring and the caller is unable to reconnect with the 911 center.

In addition, Public Safety Answer Points (PSAPs) may become overloaded with data during these calls.  Security companies, certainly, will rush to develop Alexa-enabled products.   These could be video cameras placed around the home, coupled with movement sensors, heat/fire sensors, door and window sensors (to determine if a door/window is open or shattered), and so forth.   Such a system would allow a homeowner to know the status of her home at any time or place.   But all of this data could also be transmitted to a 911 center or (via FirstNet) to responders as they are en route.   With the advent of inexpensive video cameras, the sheer amount of data (multiple video feeds, for example) would easily overwhelm a 911 center or responders.

(Note:  911 centers presently only receive voice phone calls, although an increasing number call also receive text messages.   Very few can receive photos, images, video and similar information from 911 callers).

Privacy, Hacking

Today there is significant concern about the amount of data and information collected about individuals today through their use of the Internet and social media.  The advent of voice-activated digital assistants and homes of sensors increases those concerns.  Shelly Palmer has written “How Dangerous is Alexa”, an exploration of the potential for these devices to collect vast amount of information about us simply by listening in the background, as well as by the control of our other smart devices.

Beyond the data collection is the potential for hacking these digital assistants – or the smart devices they control.   The Mirai Botnet incident of September, 2016, clearly demonstrated the power of such hacking.   We can imagine many frightening scenarios, such as criminals hacking into a home’s smart devices and directing them to open all the doors and windows to simplify a burglary.   Worse yet, a criminal syndicate or a hostile nation state might direct all the Alexas (or other digital assistants) in a city or state to “call 911” overwhelming first responders and throwing a nation into chaos.

Conclusion

“Alexa, Call Nine One One”.   Five simple words which carry such power, such potential for improving public safety, solving crimes and rushing aid to victims of fires and health emergencies.    Five simple words which raise numerous issues about the staffing preparedness of our 911 centers and public policy which our elected leaders will need to address.

Advertisements

13 Comments

Filed under 911, Alexa, APCO, Internet of Things, ng911

– Kids can be 911 Heroes Too

photo of the Local 911 Heroes Award

Rodrigo, Lori and Tom receive the 911 Local Heroes Award

Most of us have probably called 911 at some point in our lives to report a crime or a car accident. We take it for granted that the call will be answered efficiently and help will arrive quickly.

We forget, however, that calling 911 is something we learn to do. Even adults will overwhelm 911 after a minor earthquake with “did you feel that” calls. Calling 911 is a skill to be taught, knowing when to call and when not to call, staying calm, relaying the proper information. 911 For Kids is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping kids know about 911 and also prepare for other disasters and emergency response.

I attended an inspiring event at the APCO 2012 Conference in Minneapolis this week, where 9 year old Rodrigo Sanchez Sosa was recognized as a “local 911 hero”. He called 911 when his 2 year old sister fell unconscious after a seizure. Dispatcher Lori Patrick and emergency medical dispatcher Tom Polzin took the call and guided him through helping his sister until an emergency medical team arrived.

Rodrigo, Lori and Tom were all recognized as “Local 911 Heroes” on Tuesday, August 21st, in a ceremony opened by Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and sponsored by AT&T. “Local 911 Heroes” is a program established in 1999 to recognize people, especially kids, who perform in an extraordinary manner using 911 when faced with an everyday crisis.  AT&T sponsors these “Local 911 Heroes” Awards all across the country.

(Read the rest of this post on my Digital Communities Blog).

Leave a comment

Filed under 911, APCO

– Why don’t Cops Use Smart Phones?

click to see more
Responders’ Smart Phones – Click to see more

Every teenager – including some of us 50 and 60 year old teenagers – seems to have a smart phone these days.  I’m writing this on an airplane, and I just finished an intense, 20 minute “Angry Birds” session on my HTC Android smart phone (yes, it was in “airplane” mode!).   And I’m almost a Luddite when it comes to apps and smart phones.

But many people young and old commonly use their smart phones or tablet computers to do interesting, productive activities such as:

  • listen to public safety two-way radio;
  • take meeting notes using Evernote or One Note;
  • watch episodes of TV series using Hulu;
  • read books and newspapers;
  • take photos or videos and text message them around the world.

Gee, some people even use their smart phones to actually make voice telephone calls!?

So why don’t cops and firefighters, emergency medical technicians and electrical lineworkers, public works and transportation department employees, and a whole other host of critical and important government workers use smart phones in their daily jobs?

Of course these public safety workers DO use smart phones. Often they use their PERSONAL smart phones to do some part of their job. But rarely do governments give their workers smart phones – other than BlackBerrys for email, that is – to officially do their jobs and become much more productive.  In fairness, that’s not because Mayors and County Executives and Governors are unsupportive, or government CFOs are enny-pinching.

We don’t give government workers these important tools for two basic reasons:

  • The apps don’t exist;
  • There is no guarantee of priority access to commercial cell phone networks.

In terms of the “apps”, most governments use a relatively small set of applications from a few vendors – there are records management systems, computer-aided dispatch systems, utility billing systems, work management systems, etc.  And many of the vendors of those systems only recently have built them to accept even web-browser access. The terms and conditions for our (government’s) use of such software explicitly says we’ll only use the software with vendor approved configurations, or the vendor won’t give us support.  And most vendors for these government-specific systems don’t make a version of their application which runs on a smart phone, whether it is a Windows Phone 7, Apple iPad or Iphone, or  Google Android.

Software companies:  Get on the stick and write smart phone apps for your software. ‘nuf said.

More importantly, government workers presently have to use commercial mobile networks for their smart phones. And on those networks, public safety and critical infrastructure workers have no priority. That means your teenager (even if she’s 50 years old) has the same priority as a cop or firefighter or electrical lineworker responding to a major incident or emergency.

Do you want that emergency medical technician responding to YOUR heart attack to have priority access – wirelessly and in real time – to your medical history, and to the emergency room doctors at the level 1 trauma center, and to a video conference with your cardiologist?  Of course you  do!

During a robbery, when you or your employees are being held up at gunpoint, don’t you want the responding cops to be able to see the video of  your store – including the images of the perpetrators, in real time as they respond?  And have passers-by snapping photos and video of the perps to send to 911 centers using next generation 911 technologies?  Of course you do!

When your electrical power is out, or your water is interrupted, don’t you want that utility worker to have access to all the diagrams and network configurations so they can accurately pinpoint where the outage is and rapidly fix it?  Well, of course you do.

If, all of a sudden, a kid in your child’s high school goes crazy and brings a gun to that school, taking teachers and students hostage, don’t you want responding cops and firefighters to have access to the video cameras with interior views of the school, and to the school’s building plan showing all the exits, and maybe even to the GPS on the cell phone used by the kid with the gun so they can see his (they are all boys, alas) exact position in the school? Obviously we do.

But the blunt fact of the matter is this:  At the same time you are having a heart attack, or your business is being robbed, or your electricity fails, or a school lockdown occurs – everyone who has a cell phone within a mile of the incident may be texting and calling and tweeting and sending photographs to their loved ones, and the commercial cellular networks will be overloaded.

That’s why we don’t give cops and firefighters smart phones.  Because – besides the fact that safe, secure, apps don’t exist – when responders most need their smart phones, the cell phone networks will be overloaded and fail them.

Is there a way out of this dilemma?  “Of course there is!”

Several bills are pending in Congress today which would allocate wireless spectrum for priority use by police, firefighters, emergency medical techs – and also by electrical lineworkers, public works employees and transportation workers .  Those same bills would auction other spectrum for use by carriers, producing almost $26 billion in revenue to both reduce the federal government deficit and to build a nationwide public safety network which responders could use – with priority over all other users and uses.

Then those first and second responders could use smart phone applications every day, confident that the network will be available, no matter what nearby teenagers are doing.

But, like so much else in this year of 2011, Congress is in deadlock. Some brave Senators and Representatives such as Jay Rockefeller
and Kay Bailey Hutchison (with Senate Bill S.911) and Peter King and Maria Cantwell and Dave Reichert do step up to the plate, led by Vice President Joe Biden.  They all support creation of a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network.   At the same time, many others in Congress stall and block the work, while people needlessly are hurt or die.

Why don’t cops and firefighters use smart phones?  Because some in Congress would rather play politics, argue endlessly, and pinch funding than give our responders the tools they need to save lives and protect property every day, as well as during future disasters.

With the 10th anniversary of the September 11th World Trade Center disaster just a month away, does this dithering make sense?   Of course it doesn’t.

1 Comment

Filed under 911, APCO, homecity security, radio, Sept. 11th

– A Peek at the National Broadband Plan

Broadband Wireless

Broadband Wireless

On January 26th Admiral Jamie Barnett of the FCC spoke about the National Broadband Plan, which is now due out on March 17th (and I understand New York City, Boston and other cities with large Irish-American populations plan to have parades in honor of the plan that day, too!)

As a CTO, I’m so immersed in technology that I’m not sure “broadband” means anything to the average American (if an “average” American exists).   Certainly most Americans are now at least aware of the Internet and use technology in their lives, even if that tech is nothing more than a cell phone or ATM.   But all you have to do is watch the security lines at any airport and see all the laptops and luggables and cell phones and DVD players and other associated smart lumps of plastic dumped on the scanner lines to know that tech is ubiquitous in most people’s lives.

A significant fraction of people know about broadband and what it means.   In Seattle, some 84% of homes have an Internet connection, 75% have something faster than dial-up and 88% have a computer at home.  Of course Seattle’s got a reputation as a city of high tech folks (an image Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer and I work hard to polish).   But even nationwide 79% of homes have an Internet connection and 63% are faster than dial-up.  The source for these stats is here.  

These are numbers are hard to fathom when one considers the web didn’t exist 20 years ago,  and most people probably thought “Internet” had something to do with basketball, volleyball, tennis or another “net-centric” sport.

Admiral Barnett heads the Homeland Security and Public Safety Bureau at the FCC.   He’s charged with making wireless spectrum available to government in general and specifically to the law enforcement, firefighting and emergency medical agencies who keep the public safe.   He spoke at the Winter Summit of Association of Public Safety Communications Officials on January 26th, and gave us a glimpse of what the National Broadband Plan will contain. 

Admiral Barnett’s remarks centered on wireless spectrum for use by first responders.  About 10 Megahertz is available nationwide for public safety, but the license for that is held by a  single nationwide organization.     Yet most police, fire and emergency medical agencies are operated by cities and counties.    Given this paradoxical situation, 17 states and cities have requested waivers from the FCC to use that spectrum in their local areas to immediately create networks for their use.  

And why is the spectrum required?   These new wireless networks hold promise that cops in police vehicles can see videos of crimes in progress as they race to crime scenes, or rapidly access building plans, images and video.  Have a peek at a  report prepared by PTI and APCO here for more uses.  

According to Admiral Barnett, those waivers may be granted later this year so we can get started building the network.  The FCC is very interested in public-private partnerships to build the networks because many jurisdictions don’t have funds to construct such networks for themselves.  Luckily, commercial cell phone carriers like Verizon and AT&T, and companies like Motorola and Alcatel-Lucent have signed on in support of this plan, and are developing new networks including  LTE (long term evolution) for not only their own networks but also for public safety use.   This means public safety agencies could use a network built and funded by taxpayers (more resilient, better priority, less costly) for most of their work, but could roam only the commercial carriers’ networks when necessary.   This is in stark contrast to today’s networks, where police/fire radios are incompatible with the cell phone networks.  The best of both worlds!

It looks like the FCC will encourage these partnerships in its plan. 

The FCC also knows that funding will be required to construct these networks.   Admiral Barnett understands funding is required not just to build the networks, but to operate them.  Besides public-private partnerships, the FCC is floating the idea of an Emergency Response Interoperability Center (ERIC) to pushing forward on a national public safety wireless network.  We’ll hear more about this on February 10th.

Finally, Barnett said  “next generation 911” will also be recognized in the national broadband plan.   Right now, the only way to get information to a 911 center is to … well … telephone 911!    But many citizens’ cell phones have the capability to do text messages, take photos and video.   Yet 911 centers have little or no capability to accept such media, which can be critical to rapidly apprehending perpetrators and rendering aid to victims.   We higher-speed land line fiber optic networking between 911 centers and other public safety and government facilities too, and I hope that will be in the Plan.

Twenty years ago, very few people knew of the Internet or Web.   Now it is an indispensible part of most people’s lives and a vital component of our HomeCity security and public safety.  But we need more network SPEED, both wired and wireless.  The National Broadband Plan could be, with a bit of vision by the FCC, a roadmap to the future of the nation.

1 Comment

Filed under 911, APCO, broadband, emergency operations, homecity security, PSST, PTI

– A Cop Killer and Broadband

Officer Tim Brenton, click photo for more information

Officer Tim Brenton

On Friday, November 6th at 1:00 PM, five thousand people gathered in Seattle to grieve for Seattle Police Officer Tim Brenton who was murdered in his police cruiser.  At 3:30 PM the killer was caught, after a week of diligent detective work, and through use of video technology.  This tragic incident illustrates why first responders need improved technology, including a modern 4th generation (4G) wireless network.

How do I make the leap from the heartbreaking death of a police officer to the need for more technology, and, in particular, a high-speed wireless network for first responders?

First, I’ll describe Brenton’s murder. Tim Brenton, a ten-year veteran of Seattle’s Police Department, was training a new officer, Britt Sweeney, on the night of October 31st. They were stopped at the side of a street in Seattle’s Leschi neighborhood, reviewing Britt’s performance in a car stop.

Another vehicle pulled beside them on the left side of the police cruiser, and opened fire on the officers at point blank range. Sweeney, on the cruiser’s driver’s side, ducked down and the bullets grazed her back, but the shots hit Brenton immediately killing him. The murderer backed up his vehicle, and turned down a side street, being careful not to drive in front of the police cruiser.

The murderer knew every police patrol vehicle had a digital video camera, but that it faced forward. He was careful not to come into the camera’s line of sight.

There were very few clues in the case. The wounded Officer Sweeney fired at the fleeing vehicle, but was unable to get a good look or description of it. There were no other witnesses. Despite tips flowing in, there was little information and, frankly, no good leads.

Detectives started to look for video clues. Seattle has very few video cameras observing streets or intersections, and the murder took place in a residential neighborhood. Every police vehicle has a digital video camera, but the cameras only record when the vehicle has its overhead warning lights flashing or when activated by the police officer. The video is saved to a computer hard drive in the vehicle and offloaded wirelessly when the vehicle returns to the precinct station. The video cannot be directly transmitted from the vehicle because no existing City or commercial wireless network has the bandwidth to do so.

The Seattle Police Department went to work, and examined video footage recorded by all vehicles patrolling that area of that City. Miraculously, even though the video cameras face only to the front to capture car stops and officer conversations with the stopped driver, detectives found a Datsun 210 in the background driving by several of the stops made by various police cars that night.

The detectives, unsure if the Datsun was even involved in the murder, but hoping for a break, broadcast the Datsun’s distinct profile and asked for citizen help to find such a vehicle. And, on Friday the 6th, police received a call of a Datsun 210 covered with a tarp in the parking lot of a suburban Seattle apartment building. They responded and when Charles Monfort walked out toward the vehicle, he pulled a gun on the detectives. He was shot and arrested. In his apartment detectives found the murder weapon as well as improvised explosive devices. Montfort has also been linked to a firebombing of Seattle police vehicles on October 22. 

Monfort had a vendetta against police officers, and undoubtedly would have shot more officers if he had not been caught. Finding him was the result of dogged police work, those videos, and a lot of luck.

What does this say about the state of first responder technology?  First, we need more video. Seattle does have two police vehicles which drive the streets with video constantly running, and using license plate recognition looking for stolen vehicles. But every one of more than 300 patrol vehicles has video. Digital video in police vehicles is a great boon to public safety – the video and audio of every car stop is recorded. This helps quickly resolve complaints from the public about police behavior, as well as providing evidence for crimes such as drunk driving.

But perhaps we should be recording more than just car stops, e.g. continuously recording as police vehicles patrol neighborhoods. And certainly we could use more video in high crime streets and other public spaces. The ability of such video cameras to deter and solve crimes is well documented, notably in the London subway bombings.

But Seattle and other cities have been skeptical and slow to adopt it, largely due to concerns about privacy.  In terms of privacy concerns, video cameras should only observe public spaces such as streets or parks. I’m an advocate not just for deploying more video cameras, but for making almost all such video available online for anyone to view, just like traffic cameras are available online.  The video is, after all, of public spaces, and having more eyes watching for crime not only helps solve or prevent that crime, but also provides some oversight of police use of the video.

Next, we badly need high speed, fourth generation (4G) wireless broadband networking for first responders. Congress has set aside spectrum,  and a number of public safety organizations such as APCO and the PSST have been working to build such a network.   Public safety organizations have even developed standards for such a network.  But funding obstacles remain in the way.

With high speed wireless networking, video from field units – not just police but fire, utilities, transportation vehicles – can be transmitted real-time to dispatch centers, to other vehicles and to emergency management centers. Such real-time video gives police and fire commanders, 911 dispatchers and elected officials a view into what is happening in the field, and will result in more rapid resolution of crimes such as Office Tim Brenton’s murder, as well as better deployment of field officers for any violent crime, problems around schools, hazardous materials, disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes and terrorist incidents.

We got lucky solving Officer Tim Brenton’s murder. This incident is a call for action to put better video and wireless technology to work improving public safety.

6 Comments

Filed under APCO, broadband, PSST, Seattle Police