When a construction crew inadvertently cut through fiber-optic cables in St. Louis Park, Minn., last summer, things could have been catastrophic. With the city’s public safety answering points (PSAPs) out of commission, it might not have been possible to field emergency calls — but service resumed rather quickly.

PSAP traffic was rerouted to neighboring Minnetonka with only a 30-minute lapse in service. “That’s fantastic for an unplanned event,” said PSAP Manager Lt. Lori Dreier.

St. Louis Park pulled off this save thanks to a decision a year earlier to convert its telecommunications infrastructure to voice over Internet protocol (VoIP). With its portability, cost savings and the promise of enhanced functionality, Internet-based telephony is becoming the de facto choice in jurisdictions whose PSAPs are approaching the end of their five- to seven-year life cycle.

PSAP on the Move

The best reason to convert to VoIP may well be the obsolescence of existing 911 call centers. The technology driving these centers has not changed significantly in decades, and is now so far behind the times that upgrading existing infrastructure is impractical.

Meanwhile, VoIP has a range of advantages, chief among these being the portability it offers PSAP operators. Should an emergency call center find itself on the run from a natural disaster or other forces, the ability of an Internet-based system to shift calls to an alternate location can literally be a lifesaver.

Keith Lee, deputy director for the Spartanburg County, S.C., Communications/911 Department, said VoIP technology allows him to use a laptop as an alternate 911 system from any location with Internet access. “As long as the IP address is identified, that central office information can be relayed to us anywhere,” he said.

That portability has its corollary in expandability. The county’s $700,000 Positron Viper system typically supports 20 positions, but it could readily swell to 300 users, Lee said. That has implications for neighboring jurisdictions. “We’ve discussed partnering with a neighboring county that’s much smaller than [we are] and has limited revenue,” Lee said. “We have the ability to host that other county’s entire operations because of this IP-based solution.”

In Arkansas, VoIP’s portability was road-tested in an emergency situation and received high marks. When massive snowstorms threatened the state in January 2011, IT leaders, fearing the worst, stood up an IP phone network in the Department of Information Systems Call Center. Using previous experience from VoIP deployments around the state, they got the job done in just 48 hours.

Using the same type of VPN connections available to other agency support staff, call center personnel handled hundreds of calls from their homes during the worst of the weather, delivering uninterrupted service. “We knew technically that it would work,” said Arkansas CTO Claire Bailey, “and we used this weather incident to show how quickly it could be done and how well it could work.”

Rich Content

If emergency VoIP has passed the portability test, a larger challenge still looms.

Among its other virtues, IP telephony in a PSAP holds the promise of vastly enriched content. Under a scheme known broadly as next-generation 911, call centers soon will be able to receive text, photo and video messages.

There’s clear potential there. Advocates point to the hypothetical example of a kidnap victim who cannot speak but can text, or a robbery victim photographing the getaway car.

It’s a tempting vision, but we’re not there yet. The National Emergency Number Association is still developing standards, and until that happens, PSAP operators need to tread cautiously. “It’s extremely complex, with lots of moving parts,” said Lee Mayhew, senior account executive with Internet telephony provider Fonality.

For those not already transitioning to VoIP, the most important consideration will be the need to incorporate session initiation protocol (SIP) into any new system. “While the standards have not officially arrived, we are very, very close,” Mayhew said. “We know it’s going to be voice over IP and it’s going to be based on open SIP standards.”

For the careful planner, this shouldn’t present a major hurdle. “Virtually every major VoIP provider has jumped on the SIP train,” he said. “Everybody has admitted SIP has won this battle and so they have an open standard SIP offering.”

Not everyone is on board yet, however. Some jurisdictions already make rich data available to emergency dispatchers using proprietary systems or off-the-shelf products from vendors that don’t embrace SIP.

But working without standards comes with myriad perils, including the potential to fall short of regulatory requirements. “You can get it today, but what about the PSAP across the highway that you’re required to transfer information into seamlessly?” Mayhew said. “Maybe they don’t have it, or maybe they got it from someone else.”

Making the Leap

If proprietary packages stymie intercommunications, standardized VoIP implementations should do just the opposite — and that would be a big step forward from the present scenario. “Right now, there is virtually no way for most PSAPs to interact with each other without having some dedicated facility to tie their systems together,” said Stephen J. Wisely, director of comm center and 911 services for APCO International, an organization of public safety communications professionals. “Any IP broadband network will tie agencies together more easily.”

Using Internet-based systems, 311 calls could spill over to 911 during heavy volume. Alarm company alerts could feed directly into a PSAP. “Everything has an IP address nowadays, so that’s the key thing,” Wisely said.

That doesn’t mean the transition to VoIP will necessarily be easy. Wisely pointed to the simple matter of power supply as an example. VoIP phones must draw juice either from an Internet connection or appropriate wall jack. And while that isn’t an extraordinary piece of engineering, he said, “it really does require a different mindset.”

For Spartanburg County’s Lee, the surest way to deliver VoIP-based emergency services to his 287,000 constituents has been to solicit buy-in from all of the key players. “We had the administrative office people who look at records information. We had the operators who utilize it. We had the whole staff involved,” he said. All this participation up front “makes it a lot easier for the dispatchers to accept change.”

Assuming that one can get support from throughout the organization, most jurisdictions still may find themselves hindered by the budget hurdle.

Replacing a PSAP with VoIP can cost 10 to 50 percent more than swapping in another traditional system, said James Cavanagh, a 911 consultant for The Consultant Registry, a consortium of telecommunications professionals.

While there can be long-term savings, upfront spending may be required for new servers and routers; a parallel backup system; and the possibility of having to run two systems simultaneously during the transition.

Even then, a VoIP PSAP likely will not resolve the biggest telecommunications concern plaguing emergency responders today: the challenge of location awareness in VoIP.

The Internet is indifferent to geography, therefore 911 centers typically have been unable to pinpoint the exact location of VoIP-based emergency calls. Although the FCC has been working on the problem, issues persist — issues that a PSAP overhaul likely won’t solve.

The problem begins at the means of throughput — specifically the loss of the old copper wire. Unlike copper, VoIP phone lines “are location agnostic, and typically provide the location of the call server, which may or may not be where the caller is located,” Mayhew said. “We have to solve the location-data problem at the source of the communication, not at the endpoint, the PSAP. Having a VoIP-enabled PSAP will not provide location data that was never there in the first place.”

Adam Stone  |  Contributing Writer