Where Does Your Somerville 911 Call Go and How Fast Does It Take For Help To Arrive?

By William Tauro

Did you ever wonder what happens when you dial 911 from your phone? Did you ever wonder who picks it up at the other end and where they’re located and/or are they your local emergency responders answering your call?

Seconds are crucial to a victim in a situation when they dial 911 for help and any extra time wasted by rerouting calls to your location from a centralized remote location to first responders could result in a fatal outcome if it’s not handled properly.

Just recently a young lady had an emergency outside of the Somerville Hospital in Somerville and first responders had difficulty trying to locate her from when the call first came in from the 911 dispatcher to the hospital. As calls went back-and-forth from the victim to the 911 operator devouring crucially needed lifesaving time as the victim was fading in and out of consciousness until she was finally found by a Somerville firefighter who was on foot trying to locate her on Highland Avenue and then who proceeding walking up Tower Street where she was finally located and was pronounced dead shortly after.

Maybe if a better 911 locating system was in place at that time, that young lady would possibly still be alive today.

Let’s look into how the Massachusetts Bureau of Geographic Information (MassGIS and NextGen 911) are handling the thousands of calls placed everyday by people dialing 911.

At Mass.gov, learn how MassGIS is playing a crucial role in the state’s Next Generation 911 Emergency Call System, and what this means for cities and towns.

MassGIS is working very closely with the State 911 Department in the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Security on a Next Generation 911 Emergency Call System. MassGIS’ role is developing the map and address information that are at the heart of this new system. The information below explains how the new system is different, what MassGIS is doing for the State 911 Department, how municipal address information is or can be integrated into this project, and identifies address assignment best practices. Because municipalities assign new addresses, they have a key role to play in, and should ultimately assume responsibility for, keeping their address information current in the new emergency call system.

The legacy Enhanced 911 (E-911) call system was established when all phones were landlines, and when you called 911 the system used the phone number to look up the corresponding physical address (“123 Jones Avenue”) in a database. The database identified the appropriate public safety call center or PSAP (“public safety answer point”); the 911 system then used that information to route the call to the correct PSAP. This tabular lookup was replaced with a new system that uses geographic data. In Next Generation 911 the location of the caller determines which PSAP gets the call. Reasons for a new system include accommodating other ways of contacting 911 (e.g., text messages), better backup options for handling 911 calls, increased bandwidth due to the implementation the Emergency Service IP Network (ESInet), and the ability to interconnect with other Next Generation 911 systems.
Additional Resources for Introduction

How Next Generation 911 is different

The Next Generation 911 or “NextGen 911” system depends on high quality mapping: maps of emergency service zone boundaries, maps of address locations as points, and maps of roads. In the NextGen system, location information determines where the call is answered: for cell calls, longitude/latitude or an approximate location based on which cell towers receive the call signal; for landline phones, the addresses.When combined with an Emergency Service Zones (ESZs) boundary map, call locations will be used to route calls to the correct dispatch center. In the dispatch center, the call is displayed with a map to assist in verifying the location of callers; this map includes address locations as points. MassGIS has completed mapping the emergency service zones and draft mapping of address points and their address assignment for every community in the Commonwealth.

Emergency Service Zones are the geographic areas for which a specific 911 call center dispatches ambulance, fire, and police services. These zones often do not match municipal boundaries although they often follow assessor parcel boundaries

How MassGIS is mapping locations

You may be familiar with MassGIS’ initiative to standardize statewide assessor tax mapping for use in geographic information system (GIS) software. While standardized mapping has many well documented benefits, the principal reason for the standardization was because ESZ boundaries can only be mapped if you have a representation of property boundaries; mapping ESZs would have been impossible without standardized parcel mapping in GIS. In addition, assessor site addresses linked to parcels on the assessor maps were an important beginning for mapping address locations. This is because if you know the site address for a parcel, you likely know the address for the structure(s) on that parcel. The needs of the NextGen 911 project for parcels and site addresses drove the recent completion of statewide standardized parcel mapping.

MassGIS is also using site plans and similar documents to determine the correct location for addresses in multi-building complexes such as condominium complexes, college campuses, and office parks (“sites”). MassGIS has also received information from some municipalities that has been incorporated into the MassGIS master address database for that community. Finally, since October 2015, MassGIS has had technicians in the field resolving address mapping issues, especially for multi-building complexities and for mixed use developments.

As of February 1, 2018, MassGIS has mapped 2,149,000 address locations and field technicians have edited 352,000 points.

Learn more about NextGen 911 and Mapping

When will Next Generation 911 Start?
The State 911 Department has completed deploying Next Generation 911 as of January 2018. The department is now working to realize the potential benefits that the new system has to offer.

What MassGIS has developed for NextGen 911

For every city and town, MassGIS has developed a draft master address resource. This resource consists of 1) a master list of addresses, assembled from multiple sources, and 2) a map of points, derived from statewide mapping of buildings; the building points represent potential address locations. The guiding principles for this work are:

Each building point has an address
Each address is assigned to a location (usually a building point)
About 94+% of the addresses in MassGIS’ list of addresses for any one community have been associated with a point location; however, many addresses in MassGIS’ list lack a good location because they may not be real addresses, or they may be redundant. Therefore, the actual percentage of real addresses mapped to a location is quite a bit higher. MassGIS has done as much automated cleanup as possible, but often it is impossible to tell whether two addresses that are similar are actually the same. MassGIS’ master address resource for each community is as complete as we can make it from the available address sources (assessor site addresses, Comcast subscribers and Voter Registration Information System; these are validated for completeness using the Emergency Service List from Verizon). Further progress will depend on input from people working in the field or from those with local knowledge. Some of the challenges we face are: addresses that don’t match parcels (for example, apartment complexes, housing authority properties, mixed use buildings); structures without addresses; addresses with unknown location; and multi-building sites.

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