A New 911 Thumb

software and databases," Hixson said. "NG 911 will be built on common and multipurpose networks, so hopefully there will be some economies occurring."

The NG 911 systems will run on IP-based networks supporting other applications such as GIS, which are used to support 911 and other business functions like utility mapping and planning. By consolidating stovepiped systems running on their own networks and putting them on multipurpose networks, state IT planners hope to simplify operations and save money.

PSAP in a Box

A key benefit of the greater flexibility and interoperability of PSAPs will be improved emergency response coordination. Hurricane Katrina is the most obvious example in which a "virtual PSAP" would have helped take over the functions of a PSAP call center that was knocked out of commission.

In 2008, Delaware expects to finish connecting its nine PSAPs with an IP network. "It will be great in emergency situations," said Terry Whitham, the state's E-911 coordinator. "We are working on a plan in case we need to evacuate a CAD [computer-aided dispatch] center. If that area is still getting a lot of calls, you can move to another PSAP, log into the original IP address and you're ready to process calls."

In its emergency planning efforts, Vermont is working on what Lipinski calls its "PSAP-in-a-box" concept. "Our emergency planners are very concerned about the scenario of a dirty bomb in New York or Boston sending a half-million refugees fleeing to Vermont," he said. That would double the state's population overnight, and those people would need a lot of services.

Lipinski's office is working on outfitting dozens of laptops with the necessary software so that they could be used as a virtual PSAP at local college and university computer labs.

"We could scale up our call-taking capability dramatically," he said, adding that Vermont plans to train staffers in other positions to be call takers in emergencies. "We can maintain a normal load, yet double or triple the size of our operation in a few hours if need be."

Making the Transition

Besides additional flexibility during an emergency, 911 officials are excited about adding the capability to receive and respond to text messages. "Kids text to everybody, and they will try to text to 911," said Pete Eggiman, director of 911 services for the Minneapolis/St. Paul Metropolitan 911 Board. "It's what they are used to doing, and it's what they'll turn to first in a stressful situation."

Receiving messages directly from automobile alarms, tracking systems such as OnStar and video feeds from bank alarm systems, also will be helpful. Currently these kinds of systems send signals to the alarm provider's call center, where a dispatcher relays the advisory to a PSAP. In the future, a 911 system will receive telematics information directly from an automobile system such as OnStar, and then a 911 call taker could potentially relay information - such as how fast the car was traveling when it crashed - to emergency room physicians.

But Eggiman said the ability to relay that information to police, fire and other first responders presents new challenges.

"Whatever we take in from a caller or bank, we have to be able to deliver to responders in squad cars," said Eggiman. "So we have to start talking about greater interoperability in all applications."

Eggiman said the technological challenges of blending radio, criminal justice and GIS networks are less daunting than the political obstacles. Today these systems are riding on their own networks and they aren't sharing much information, he said.

"There needs to be a converged environment, and that doesn't mesh with how things are funded today," Eggiman explained. "There has to be a way to blend funding streams. We have to get city, county, state and the feds to all

David Raths  |  contributing writer