On May 1, 2010, a terrorist attack in New York City’s Times Square was 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?

“They could really capture the dynamics of the event,” said Brian Fontes, executive director of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). “That is what I call an information-rich 911 call, which will be supported in a next-generation 911 system.”

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.

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The very structure of the current 911 system is rapidly going out of date.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,” said Roger Hixson, technical issues director for NENA. “You can’t find people in the phone companies knowledgeable about the old technology anymore. We have to evolve to survive.”

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 is to have interconnected networks,” Hixson said. “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.”

The deaf and hard-of-hearing will especially benefit from an upgrade, because it will be easier for them to reach 911 with their phones without requiring additional devices. Looking not too far into the future, it could also harness the technology of biomedical devices, such as a defibrillator that could automatically call 911 during a medical emergency. Increasingly popular automatic collision notification systems, like OnStar, could be routed to 911 and change the way a dispatcher responds to a serious accident.

Beyond receiving and sending multimedia, there are other benefits to the 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.

“From my perspective, it will allow our 911 centers to function in the 21st-century world of telecommunications,” Fontes said. “It will allow for information — voice plus video and data — to move seamlessly from consumer to the 911 center, and then ultimately to first responders participating in FirstNet, the wireless public safety broadband network.”

What Will it Take to Implement?

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, said John Chiaramonte, senior program manager with consulting firm Mission Critical Partners. “Whether these changes happen at a city, county, regional or state level depends on factors having to do with size, history and culture,” he said.

For instance, 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.

“Technology is not really the big issue,” Chiaramonte said. “It is more the funding, policies and governance that must be worked through.”

The 911 authorities also have to determine how they will maintain legacy systems while working on new ones. “There is not going to be a flash cut-over,” he said. “For a while there is going to have to be a hybrid approach.”

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.

In one example, 17 emergency telephone system boards in southern Illinois have bound together through intergovernmental agreements to create a secure public safety broadband network. They will share voice and data associated with a next-generation capable 911 system. Instead of purchasing 17 separate sets of NG911 equipment that would each serve a limited geographic area, they are purchasing two redundant systems and connecting them through a secure IP network.

Some states, like Ohio, are planning a common statewide network structure for core functions. “That highlights an incredibly important point,” Fontes said. “Everyone wants to know what the cost is going to be, and that is a valid question to ask. But there are cost savings associated with the investment. 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.”

David Raths  |  contributing writer