For years a stalemate prevailed between emergency call center authorities and telecommunications carriers. Both needed to upgrade their systems to get to the state known as next-generation 911, or NG911.
Upgrading to an IP-capable infrastructure would cost millions, and neither wanted to make the first move. That landscape is shifting, with state and municipal emergency leaders revamping their legacy technology to support NG911 capabilities. Now they want the carriers to step up. “We built the superhighway, but no one is sending the cars yet,” said Maine E911 Director Maria Jacques.
Emergency call centers have seen big benefits from their upgrades. Operating costs are down and they have powerful new capabilities. But until the carriers step up to the plate, they say, NG911 will remain more theory than fact.
NG911 promises to replace existing narrow-band, circuit-switched networks with more robust digital architectures, expanding beyond voice to more readily deliver data including photo and video information. Such a system would be able to layer on location and other data for more efficient call routing and handling.
Proponents across the emergency community say NG911 will save lives. Improved call routing will speed responders to the scene. Multimedia overlays could give dispatchers a clearer understanding of an emergency and would help them to better organize the response.
Officials with the North Central Texas Council of Governments want to acquire these capabilities. They have built an NG-ready infrastructure, and they have a procurement in the works to improve the user interface for call handlers. Even having come this far, though, officials say they cannot actually cross the threshold to put the enhanced capabilities into play.
“We have been putting in the infrastructure to support this, but the service providers are not able to support these things,” said 911 Technology Manager Clay Dilday. “It always goes back to the wireless providers, the telcos, and how they give us the information. If they are not structured to give us the NG911 functionality, then just having the platform doesn’t give you any new capabilities.”
Officials tell a similar story in Maine, where a 2014 upgrade brought all systems up to NG911 capability. It was a massive project, with a $32 million price tag that included five years of support, and it delivered some immediate benefits. The IP-enabled network costs about $1 million less per year to operate, as compared to the legacy system.
But it hasn’t delivered multimedia, and officials don’t know if or when that is going to happen. “It isn’t like flipping a switch. People think as soon as you become next-gen you get pictures, you get videos, but there are no providers knocking at the door to send us video,” Jacques said. “Ultimately, the wireless carriers will have to deliver that, but we are not there yet and those things are not under the control of the PSAP.”
These aren’t isolated cases: Public safety answering points (PSAPs) around the nation are moving ahead on NG911. The San Francisco Department of Emergency Management recently initiated a next-gen upgrade for its 911 center, which receives more than 3,000 calls a day. Philadelphia launched a next-gen upgrade effort last summer. Yet in many cases, the PSAPs are outpacing the carriers.
The Valencia Regional Emergency Communications Center, in Los Lunas, N.M., is spending $3.2 million on a new call center facility that is slated to include radio upgrades, a new dispatch system and NG-ready 911 capabilities. “This is going to be a huge enhancement for all our users,” said Aaron Chavez, administrative services director. He’s eager to get hold of the next-gen bells and whistles, but said the local carrier infrastructure isn’t ready to deliver. “We will have those capabilities once they are ready to go there.”
It raises the question: Why the disconnect?
Frustrated emergency management professionals say the carriers simply have no good reason to invest the money to upgrade their own networks. There’s not a massive commercial demand for NG911, which is rather a niche market, and as a regulated industry, telecom doesn’t much feel like doing anything unless regulators tell it to.
“It always goes back to legislation,” Dilday said. “If the providers aren’t mandated to support these things, they don’t do it.”
Vendors in the space echo these sentiments. “The carriers can put up all sorts of technical reasons why things can’t be done,” said John Rennie, general manager for public safety at telecom solutions provider NICE, which is working on the San Francisco upgrade. “But then you pull up your smartphone and it has maps, and it knows where you are, and it delivers video.”
If carriers aren’t bringing these same IP-driven enhancements to the PSAP, “it’s because there is no driver coming from government, and there is no commercial driver to connect it to 911,” Rennie said. “There are no insurmountable technical barriers. It is more the commercial and political barriers to making it happen.”
At the same time, there are some who take a more generous view of the situation. Even some staunch advocates of NG911 adoption offer a less stinging rebuke.
The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) is developing the technical standards that support NG911. The group also is part of Next Generation 911 Now, a coalition that is pressing for more rapid adoption of the new technology. Yet NENA’s director of government affairs, Trey Forgety, is prone to be a little more sympathetic in describing the apparent lag between PSAP upgrades and carrier capabilities.
“The carriers have a tremendous economic incentive. They want to get off of this terribly expensive, difficult-to-maintain legacy stuff. If you look at their announced plans, they are doing that,” he said. “The thing that gets lost is just the scale of this undertaking. We are looking at hundreds of millions of wire-line connections and all of this legacy infrastructure. The scale of the undertaking in enormous.”
Others say the PSAPs themselves may be overstating their own readiness. Virtually all emergency call systems in Tennessee are technologically ready for NG911, said Jamison Peevyhouse, director of 911 and emergency management in Weakley County. But that doesn’t mean they could pull the trigger tomorrow if the carriers suddenly stepped up.
“We absolutely can do this, but have I updated my policies locally? Have I trained my people for that reality? Have I trained them to see a video of an incident while they are simultaneously coordinating a response?” Peevyhouse said. “Imagine having to do CPR instructions over text to 911. It is excruciatingly slow.”
Carriers for their part say they are moving in the right direction.
In early 2016 AT&T announced ESInet, calling it “a state-of-the-art, robust and flexible network with call routing services for 911 agencies.” It’s text-ready, and the company says it will support photos and videos some time in the future, and will simplify the transition to next-gen public safety across a 21-state footprint. Verizon has likewise been putting out press releases promoting its next-gen efforts since at least 2011.
While the PSAP operators wait for these promises to come to fruition, those who have upgraded their systems say they are already seeing benefits, even in the absence of full NG911 capabilities.
Having an IP-based infrastructure has improved call handling in Maine. In the past, wireless calls had to be manually routed. “You had to know who the PSAP was and look in your contact list,” Jacques said. “So one immediate benefit of next-gen 911 is when that call comes in, it autopopulates those transfer buttons even with a wireless call. That provides for a much more immediate response.”
Upgrades have expanded the call-taker’s range of options, adding new providers to the menu of available options on a given call. The new system also delivers something an analog call center never could access: analytics.
“If you have a major storm and calls flood the system, you want to see how those calls are routed,” Jacques said. “With NG911 you have more extensive policies, so, for example, if there are no call-takers available, that call will route to a different PSAP and it will keep routing based on policy instructions until that call is answered. Then after the event we can review in detail what happened with any given call that came in.”
In fact, emergency planners in Maine have made changes to the system’s routing instructions specifically based on post-storm analytics.
The Maine experience demonstrates what many in the emergency community believe to be true: that NG-911 is going to dramatically enhance the delivery of emergency services. When will that happen? After years of back-and-forth over who would take the first step, emergency managers say the ball is now in the court of the telecom providers, whose systems need to be appropriately upgraded and enhanced in order to make good on the promise of the new technologies.