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Enhancing E911 services April 16, 2014

Posted by TelUS Consulting Services in VoIP catagory.

A terrorist attack in New York City’s Times Square is thwarted when street vendors noticed smoke coming from a vehicle in which a homemade bomb had failed to explode. Imagine if those street vendors could have used their cellphones to send pictures or video of the vehicle and its license plate to a 911 call center. What if the 911 center could then push that data to first responders and police to get the location from GIS and buildings visual in the photos?

What Is Next-Generation 911?

Fifty-eight percent of Americans own smartphones and people now routinely send text messages, photos and videos from their mobile devices. And although 75 percent of all calls to 911 are wireless, most 911 centers today are still tethered to the voice-centered world of communications of the last century and are unable to receive text or photos. In fact with cell phone portability E911 centers have difficulty even identifying locations of cell phone users quickly.

The existing 911 system faces difficulties in supporting text or multimedia messaging, according to NENA, and it lacks the capability to interconnect with other systems and databases such as building plans and electronic medical records. The very structure of the current 911 system is rapidly going out of date. It is analog network-based system in a digital world.

There is a movement under way to move to a next-generation 911 (NG911) system based on modern Internet protocol-based networks that take advantage of capabilities such as text and video messaging. And NENA has done years of work on developing the i3 architecture standard that vendors will follow. The intention would be to have interconnected networks. That type of interoperability requires standards. People in public safety also indicated that they wanted more flexible systems not just in terms of multimedia versus voice, but also in terms of their ability to pick different vendors and have them operate together, so they weren’t locked in with just one vendor. Obviously a challenge we have all experienced in the telco environment.

Beyond receiving and sending multimedia, there are other benefits to the proposed new types of networks. Public safety answering points (PSAPs) will be able to transfer calls and activate alternative routing to share the burden during an emergency or when PSAPs are closed by disaster. For instance, during Hurricane Katrina, 38 call centers were disabled and people in those areas were unable to reach 911. In contrast, Vermont has implemented a modern IP-based network linking its eight PSAPs. When Hurricane Irene took one of them offline in 2011, the other seven were able to seamlessly answer calls for that area. The next-generation system promises to allow seamless information sharing between 911 centers, first responders, trauma centers and other emergency response entities. Linked PSAPs will also be able to share resources like GIS databases rather than each having to purchase its own.

What Will it Take to Implement this Next generation Network??

If the benefits of NG911 seem obvious, the transition itself is by no means easy. There are many issues that states and regions must work through relating to technology standards, the process of transition, governance and funding. Creating regional or state networks of previously autonomous 911 authorities raises many issues. Complicating matters is that each state handles 911 differently. Progress is uneven across the country. Some regions, like King County, Wash., have been working on upgrading their emergency call centers with NG911 technology for almost a decade. Yet in many rural parts of the country, very little has been done. There are more than 6,000 PSAPs in the U.S. and they all do things slightly differently. Technology is not really the big issue, it is more the funding, policies and governance. The 911 authorities also have to determine how they will maintain legacy systems while working on new ones. This will certainly not be something we can flash cut-over.

Regions around the country are developing Emergency Services IP networks (ESInets), which are the foundation on which 911 will be built. They are designed to expand mutual aid and allow for the sharing of applications and systems. For instance, they could provide internetwork access to databases such as hazmat information. As an example,  Vermont has made progress on NG911 because it has only eight PSAPs statewide. Rhode Island has just one PSAP for the whole state. It is much easier to control funding and governance in those situations compared to someplace like Texas that has hundreds of PSAPs.

Some states, like Ohio, are planning a common statewide network structure for core functions.  In Washington, where they have deployed the telecom infrastructure for NG911, they have a 48 percent savings in telecommunications cost. So looking at cost is just one side of the coin.

How Soon Will NG911 Become Reality?

Current estimates are that NG911 should be fairly ubiquitous in the U.S. within five years, although there will be outliers that take longer. So what’s the main roadblock?  In some states, 911 is woefully underfunded, and the 911 community has expressed concern that the federal government has not made enough grant funding available for the transition. The federal government has spent just $43 million on grants going back to 2008 for NG911 projects, and so far has designated $115 million (in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act) for it going forward. There are nearly 250 million 911 calls made each year, and that is the first link to public safety. And to have that first link so critical to the whole chain of events underfunded is very unfortunate.

No one at the local level wants to see the federal government do anything that looks like it’s taking over local provision of 911 service, but the federal government is spending up to $8 billion on the FirstNet network to connect first responder agencies with wireless broadband.

There are great opportunities for collaboration between NG911 and FirstNet . FirstNet is being designed as a wireless broadband network to connect all first responders. NG911 is a new network to connect all 911 systems.

Aside from funding, another hurdle is that legislative changes are needed in most states because the rules governing 911 haven’t been rewritten in 40 years

Government leaders need to treat 911 on par with police, fire and emergency medical services as a critical public safety service. Increasingly consolidated emergency communications centers are operating independently and no longer tethered to police, fire or EMS. But policymakers have to understand their importance. It would appear policy makers still have a ways to go when it comes to understanding societies needs in an increasingly online digital world. Let us all hope that they focus on public safety and temper that with a modest amount of personal privacy concerns.

Joe Buck, NCE


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