Colorado is a case study of the promise and challenge of NG911. Daryl Branson, executive director of the nonprofit Colorado 9-1-1 Resource Center, explained that 911 is very much a locally controlled service in his state. Many states have some level of state coordination, such as a 911 office or board. But not in Colorado where the only oversight of 911 service at the state level is the Public Utilities Commission (PUC). And the PUC is tasked only with overseeing the quality of service provided by the carriers, Branson said. “That presents some challenges for local-control states,” he added, “when they want to try to transition to a type of network that is regional or statewide in nature, which is what NG911 would be.”

Stakeholders in Colorado are trying to define a new path because there’s no desire to give up local control or create a new regulatory or oversight body at the state level, Branson said. There have been investments in preparation for NG911 in many parts of Colorado.

“In the Front Range corridor from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, there’s an understanding that this is the direction we have to go, and a lot of authorities have put in structures already to get themselves ready for an IP-based future,” Branson said. “But in rural areas of the state, in some cases they see the potential, but in other cases it seems very far away and I don’t think it is very high on their list of priorities.”

Speaking at a Feb. 25 PUC workshop, Matt Goetsch, 911 coordinator for the Montrose County 911 Authority, expressed concerns about going to the added expense for features that a smaller authority and PSAP may not need for some time.

Joseph Benkert, counsel for the Boulder Regional Emergency Telephone Service Authority, which has four PSAPs, said Boulder uses an IP telephone system provided by Intrado. “We could implement NG911 pretty easily at any time.” But he said there are several unanswered questions, including: When does it make sense to do so on a cost basis? And when are the features and services going to be available?

“Our concern is somewhat with the expense of those services and features that may only benefit a small number of people,” Benkert said. “And where would we take money from to pay for those services or features? Because it is a zero-sum game among the public safety agencies.”

System upgrades funded and coordinated by the Larimer Emergency Telephone Authority (LETA) have connected the five PSAPs in Larimer County with a next-generation-ready network. LETA plans to begin offering text-to-911 services in June, working with all four main mobile carriers in Colorado, said Kimberly Culp, the organization’s executive director. The five PSAPS can now communicate instantly online and reroute 911 calls to other communications centers during times of heavy call loads.

Culp agreed that funding can be a challenge, but she said that LETA had been planning for the changes for years, including setting aside funds for the upgrade. “You have to do it in steps,” she said. “You can’t do it all in one year. The biggest challenge for Colorado is how do we do it together? Here in Larimer County, we are good to go.”

The big question, Culp said, is how to connect to adjacent counties or to help them upgrade. “We don’t need state oversight. We just need to go ahead and do it on the local level.”

How Soon Will NG911 Become Reality?

Fontes and Hixson both estimate 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.

“If we really are going to ensure that our nation has a NG911 system, we have to make sure we are on par with other public safety services, and that we have a sufficient amount of money to enable this to occur,” Fontes said. “There are 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, Branson said, but he noted that the federal government is spending up to $8 billion on the FirstNet network to connect first responder agencies with wireless broadband.

“Clearly, their priority is on FirstNet and not on NG911, but the way I look at it, those are really two sides of the same service. Getting information from the public to the PSAP is the NG911 part,” Branson explained. “They are spending money on the back end, which is getting information from the PSAP to the first responders. But if you can’t get that information from the public to the PSAP first, you’re missing half the equation.”

There are great opportunities for collaboration between NG911 and FirstNet, Chiaramonte said. FirstNet is being designed as a wireless broadband network to connect all first responders. NG911 is a new network to connect all 911 systems. “These are parallel activities going on, and there needs to be more coordination and bridging between these two efforts,” he said. “There are finite resources and not enough funding for either so far, so it is imperative that the efforts be coordinated.”

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, Chiaramonte said. “They often specifically reference legacy technology and might not be open to interpretation with newer technology.”

A 2011 report by the California Technology Agency noted that several state laws and regulations governing the type of devices and “calls” allowed to access the NG911 network might require modifications, including:

  • reviewing laws and regulations concerning the eligible use of NG911 funds;
  • ensuring that laws or regulations do not require specific technology components for 911 service delivery that are incompatible with NG911 service;
  • eliminating laws and regulations that inhibit efficient sharing of NG911 data, but retain appropriate safeguards for privacy protection;
  • crafting uniform requirements for all NG911 service providers that meet accepted industry standards;
  • ensuring that laws and regulations are functional, standards-based and performance-based, without reference to any specific proprietary technology, manufacturer or service provider; and
  • ensuring that state and local government should be prohibited from reallocating funds intended for existing 911 and new NG911 services to other purposes.

When asked what other roadblocks remain, Fontes stressed leadership. “There seems to be an understanding that 911 is important, but no one does the deep dive into how 911 really works.”

Government leaders need to treat 911 on par with police, fire and emergency medical services as a critical public safety service. Increasingly, Fontes said, consolidated emergency communications centers are operating independently and no longer tethered to police, fire or EMS. But policymakers have to understand their importance. “Of course, we would always like money,” he said. “But more importantly, we would like equal treatment for grants and funding that already exists for public safety.”

This story was originally published by Emergency Management

David Raths  |  contributing writer