When Vermont's emergency response community switched to a new Internet protocol (IP)-based 911 telecommunications system in two data centers in February 2007, it put the state on the leading edge of the nationwide transition to next-generation 911 (NG 911) call centers.
Across the country, regional and state officials are working on standards and funding mechanisms to shift from legacy systems to IP-based networks - gaining the flexibility to handle emergencies and bringing the country's 6,500 call centers into the 21st century.
In essence, 911 centers are working to catch up with the profusion of consumer devices that send and receive text, data and digital images.
In a few years, most call centers should be able to exchange and disseminate text messages to the public alerting them of emergencies, as well as stream videos of bank robberies and transfer those images to police squad cars. And when a tanker truck flips over on the highway, a passerby will be able to take a photo with his or her cell phone and send a picture to 911 of the truck's hazardous material symbols.
Model of Excellence
Many states have several regional 911 networks that can't communicate with one another and are tied to specialized 911 routing equipment and software used by landline telephone service providers. In addition, disparate emergency service agencies that are typically part of a metropolitan area are likely to have different types of software systems, making transferring callers and their information difficult.
That's not the case in Vermont.
"All incoming calls go to one of the two data centers and are converted to voice over IP [VoIP]," explained Jim Lipinski, IT manager of the Vermont Enhanced 911 Board in Montpelier.
From there, the calls are routed to one of nine call centers (also known as public safety answering points, or PSAPs) around the state. If one PSAP is busy with calls or knocked out of service by a storm, calls can instantly be routed to a second tier of nearby PSAPs.
"We can add flexibility while shrinking our whole system," Lipinski said. "We were able to decommission a PSAP that was taking less than 1 percent of calls statewide. The transition was no big deal - they just logged off."
Experts working on next-generation systems realize the current architecture is outdated, and that wireless and VoIP technologies were added piecemeal to systems that weren't designed for it.
"The system we have is built on an analog platform," said Thera Bradshaw, principal with TKC Consulting Group in Los Angeles. "It served the country well for 40 years and was a public policy success, but the infrastructure that is in place is outdated in a mobile, digital world," said Bradshaw, who's a member of a Washington, D.C., trade group called the 911 Industry Alliance, and former president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials.
For instance, during the April 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech that killed 32, students tried to send text messages to 911, Bradshaw said, not realizing that 911 call centers aren't equipped to receive text messages. They also can't handle cell phone photos or streaming video from closed-circuit TV cameras or devices used by the hearing-impaired.
All that will change, but not for another two to three years. "At the rate we're going, we'll be lucky to have the first fully featured, standards-based NG 911 system in place by 2010," said Roger Hixson, technical issues director of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), a group that fosters the technological advancement of 911 systems.
Hixson stressed that switching to IP networks is just the first step in a long-term process. The NG 911 systems will also require changes to software, databases and workers' procedures.
"Today's systems depend on things built into the phone network dedicated to 911 calling, including special