In North America, when an emergency situation arises that requires police officers, ambulance services, or firefighters, citizens are able to dial the number 9-1-1 and speak to a call taker who will dispatch the appropriate responder. In the next few years within Canada, such services will begin moving to Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG911), which will allow citizens to use more advanced technologies such as text messaging, video calling, or the sharing of photos or videos.
The challenge is that there has been little investigation into how such services should be designed and how they should fit within typical situations involving calls to 9-1-1. We explore this topic through an exploration of video calling from the perspective of everyday people who might call 9-1-1 to report an emergency and seek help.
Interviewing 9-1-1 Callers
We conducted a study with people who have called 9-1-1 to
understand their calling experiences, needs, and challenges.
We also explored the potential of how mobile-video calling
might have been used, if it was available, what benefits it
would have created (if any), and what challenges could
have arisen. Our study was approved by our ethics
We conducted interviews with 17 people who had
previously called 9-1-1 in urban areas. We conducted semi-structured interviews with each
participant. We structured the interview in two phases. The
first phase of the interview focused on understanding their
experiences with calling 9-1-1, asking them to give us a
play-by-play of their situation and conversation with 9-1-1
call takers. The second phase of the interview focused specifically on
the future use of 9-1-1 video calling for emergency
situations. To ground participants’
responses and reduce the need for them to speculate about
general situations, we asked them to think specifically
about their previous 9-1-1 call.
Our results illustrate that video calling for emergency
situations can provide a number of benefits to callers,
including the ability to show rather than tell call takers
about a situation. 9-1-1 video calling is best thought of as a
collaborative act between callers and call takers where
callers want to largely give up decision-making control of
what information to share. Instead, they want camera
work—the continual efforts needed to properly orient a
mobile device’s camera to share a certain view to be controlled by the call taker. Yet callers
are actively concerned about what may be shown on camera
and how this will affect emergency response. Video calling
raises issues around anonymity of the caller, consent of the
people being captured, and biases that might emerge around
ethnicity or gender if a caller or victim can be seen. There is
also the potential for self-censorship of what is captured by
the caller. These issues illustrate that designing 9-1-1 video
calling systems requires careful design considerations to
balance the needs of callers and information acquisition.
Our study provides details of how 9-1-1 callers experienced
calls during emergency situations and their perceived
benefits and challenges of video calling for similar
situations. These results point to a wealth of design
opportunities to explore for the creation of video-based 9-1-
1 calling solutions. This relates to systems for both callers
and call takers of 9-1-1 calls where our results shed light on
design implications for these systems.
Our work helps to open up a rich design
space that is vastly untapped and of critical importance.
With countries like Canada already creating policies around
next generation emergency calling services, it is critical that
we continue to understand how these services should be
designed and what the likely user experience will be.
Our work was specifically scoped to explore the
experiences and needs of 9-1-1 callers. Future work should
explore the perspectives of 9-1-1 call takers and dispatchers
as their perspective and needs are critical for the design of