Implications of the Deployment of Wireless Emergency Response Systems


Michael R. Curry, David J. Phillips and Priscilla M. Regan (US)


Over the past two decades there has been a steady growth in the number, extent and capacity of emergency response systems (ERS) in the U.S. and globally. Also known in North America as 911 systems, they were originally introduced as a means of expediting emergency responses by establishing a single, easy to remember number – 911 – for all emergency calls. All calls to that number would be routed through a central office to the appropriate local emergency response unit. In this form, they had no automated geographic component. However, in the 1990s a second iteration of the system, referred to as Enhanced 911 (or E-911), was introduced. This system automatically provided the emergency operator with not just the number, but also the address of the telephone from which the call was made. In the United States, the implementation of this system has involved the massive rationalization and disambiguation of postal addresses, in both urban and rural areas. In urban areas duplicate street names have been changed, and in rural areas there is an ongoing process by which traditional Rural Route and Box numbers are replaced with standard street names and house numbers.

By the late 1990s, some experts estimated that over 50% of emergency 911 calls in the United States were placed from wireless telephones. Because mobile telephones could not be depended upon to reside at a particular postal address, they were incompatible with the newly enhanced 911 system. In response, the Wireless Communication and Public Safety Act of 1999 mandated a new iteration of the 911 system, incorporating technologies that permit the location of the source of wireless 911 calls.

Our research, a comparative case study of the deployment of wireless E-911 systems in the U.S. and Canada, attempts to understand their implications and effects on individuals as they negotiate the structure of daily life. These fall into three categories:

First, the use of these systems for public safety involves as a basic element the identifying and tracking of households and individuals. This means one thing when the systems are used strictly for their intended purposes, but may mean something else when these systems are used for additional purposes. Second, the broader commercialization of the systems appears to open the way for their use not simply to track individuals, but also to incorporate collected data into larger, pre-existing geodemographic systems. These systems may be used to typify places and persons. And third, the systems have been associated with a general rationalization of the landscape, with what James Scott referred to as the creation of a newly “legible” landscape.

Much of the policy action and public concern with location-based services such as 911 systems has focused on privacy. That concern has, by and large, focused on the first of the three issues above, that of tracking, and more particularly, the possibility of tracking for commercial purposes. But we believe that each of the three areas that we mention is of social consequence, and that each – but each in a different way – raises issues of personal privacy.

The first of these appears the most conventional. There the issue concerns the collection and use of information about individuals. This was an issue with the first, primitive systems; it was more an issue with E-911 systems; and will become even more of an issue with the implementation of wireless E-911. Here, though, it might be argued that the issues of transparency and consent, so important to American and European thinking about privacy and data protection, provide a sufficient model for the regulation of the systems and protection of individual privacy.

When we turn to the second issue, of the incorporation of collected data into larger, pre-existing geodemographic systems, rather a different set of issues arises. Here it becomes possible, using the systems, not merely to track individuals, but also to use information about their locations and actions for a range of other purposes. It becomes possible on the one hand to associate individuals – and no longer just households – with particular locations, and thereby to characterize the actions of those individuals in a detailed way that defines them as members of particular categories. At the same time, it becomes possible to use those data as means for the redefinition of geographical space, so that traditional, fixed neighborhoods can now be seen as fluid, as changing throughout the day on the basis of the nature of the individuals who occupy them. Conjointly these two possibilities raise the issue of the extextent to which it remains possible to engage in private actions within public space; and so calls into question the very nature of public space.

Finally, the rationalization of the address system across the United States has been an institutional underpinning of 911 systems. This process, begun with the development of the ZIP Code in the 1960s, has been extended and intensified, creating a comprehensive system within which every mailing address and telephone extension, to the level of the office within a building, has been geocoded. This raises a series of important social issues. Perhaps most obviously, it increases the extent to which it becomes possible to move the locus of authority from the local level to a more centralized location. To the extent that decision-makers prefer to make their decisions using standard data, this sets the stage for an increase in the collection of individual data. It also suggests the possibility that traditional, local means of social understanding and control may be replaced with ones that rely on those centralized, distant, and standardized databanks. Hence, this third issue, the development of an increasingly legible landscape, feeds back into the first two issues raised by the development of 911 systems. All three issues raise the question of how robust existing laws and systems of privacy protection are in the face of these new challenges.