How Illinois Counties Overcame the Barriers to Next-Gen 911

Policy and legal issues prove more challenging than technological ones but southern Illinois counties prevail.

by David Raths / November 17, 2014
Next-generation 911 systems have the potential to improve emergency response and call-taking — but PSAPs have to get past the barriers to implementation first. (Flickr/Nathan Rupert)

Ken Smith, the 911 coordinator for Williamson County in Herrin, Ill., remembers the state officials’ response when he and his southern Illinois colleagues wanted to explore a next-generation 911 system that would accept text messages, automatic crash notification data, pictures and streaming video.

“They looked at us like we were crazy,” he said.

The state had no plans to put in an Emergency Services IP network (ESInet), and the phone companies said they had no such plans either. That’s when Smith and his colleagues realized they’d have to figure out how to do it themselves. It was no easy task.

Jackson County, one of 15 southern Illinois counties that formed an association for the project, was prepared to go live with the new system on Sept. 23, followed by the other 14 by the end of the year. Smith, the group’s chairman, can look back over the past eight years with a mix of pride in the group’s persistence, anticipation of the new features it promises, and disbelief that the policy and regulatory issues took so long to resolve.

The existing 911 systems face difficulties in supporting text or multimedia messaging, and lack the capability to interconnect with other systems and databases such as building plans and electronic medical records. Beyond receiving and sending multimedia, there are other benefits to newer Internet protocol (IP)-based 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.

Unwilling to wait for the state government to take charge and develop a solution, the 15 counties formed an association, called the Counties of Southern Illinois (CSI), to begin researching one. “We educated ourselves on what we were going to need and started the process of trying to find funding,” Smith said. 

The organization got three grants. It received a $600,000 COPS grant from the Department of Justice and $100,000 from the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission. Its major funding was part of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. CSI also received $31 million in partnership with competitive local exchange carrier Clearwave Communications. That amount was matched by $12 million in state funding and $400,000 from the 911 boards themselves.

“Without that grant money,” Smith said bluntly, “we would still be sitting back doing nothing.”

While CSI was thinking through its deployment, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) was developing the i3 architecture standard that vendors will follow. “We wanted this to be fully i3 and do things the way NENA envisioned it,” Smith said. “So they made us a national pilot project, and that recognition helped us get the federal grant.”

Roger Hixson, technical issues director for NENA, said there were just a few groups interested in owning and operating a system themselves and that NENA wanted to see someone try the approach, thus the support for CSI.

“They wanted to be able to own the core system and operate it themselves, rather than leasing it based on tariffs,” Hixson said. “The vast majority of 911 groups will probably not do it that way.”

To cut back on project costs, the CSI team decided not to pay an outside consultant. “All the work a consulting firm would have done the executive board of CSI did itself,” said Smith, who has been Williamson County’s 911 coordinator for 20 years and serves as a regional vice president of NENA’s Illinois chapter.

It took three years for technology partner Clearwave to build out the network. “There were times when we thought that was going to be the biggest delay,” Smith said, “but it turned out the regulatory issues were the bigger hurdle.”

With no statewide 911 authority, the local 911 programs are overseen by the Illinois Commerce Commission, which told CSI that the law on the books said the telephone company has to provide these services.

“We were trying to say that no, the phone company doesn’t have to do it. We can do it for ourselves,” Smith said. “We got legislation passed that allowed us to do a pilot project as CSI, and so we went through a long legal battle with the state and phone companies to try to become our own provider.”

CSI bought all the equipment and assembled the expertise. After a year and $25,000 in legal fees, the commerce commission said it wasn’t going to allow the project to go forward. So CSI had to take a new approach and have its vendor become its official service provider. The company went through the process of becoming a systems service provider in Illinois and thus the Sept. 23 launch date.

But Smith still sounded incredulous about the hoops CSI had to jump through to achieve its goals. “We have been paying to maintain a million dollars’ worth of equipment that we haven’t been able to use for two years,” he said. “We had the ESInet in place and didn’t have permission to use it. The phone company has a much more powerful lobby than fifteen 911 systems.”

Smith said three counties that were part of the initial group dropped out because their officials were worried about the cost. But some adjacent counties have contacted CSI about joining. “I am not interested in talking to them until all 15 counties are up and running,” he said. “It is like the Little Red Hen. We baked the bread. They weren’t interested when there was work involved. They were happy to sit back, watch and see how it goes.”

Hixson said CSI “stuck it out” and that’s the kind of commitment it takes. “You can’t just decide you want to do it, you have to be committed to doing it.” He said the regulatory and legislative issues can make the challenge daunting. “In some states, if you go by what the letter of the law says you can’t do NG911 ever. Legislation is going to have to change in terms of policy and technology.”

As far as Smith knows, CSI is the only association of counties that has formed and made as much progress on NG911. “There are statewide systems where the state is pushing from the top, and in those states the process should go much faster,” he said. In fact, Pat Lustig, who was CSI’s project manager, recently moved to Oregon, where he is going to run a statewide effort.

“There have been other cases of local areas banding together for 911 services, but regarding NG911 itself, I don’t know of any other examples of counties joining in a coordinated effort like CSI did,” Hixson said. There are examples of counties acting as seeds and hoping to draw surrounding counties, and other, state-oriented projects in California, Massachusetts and Vermont.

As in other regions, the first of CSI’s NG911 services will be text-to-911, but Smith is more interested in talking about flexibility and interoperability. “We are a bunch of small counties with one PSAP each. If a tornado comes through, they are wiped out.” (In fact, that did happen in 2009, when 911 in three counties went down during a tornado.)

“With this new system, we have connected 21 PSAPs and two sets of data center equipment that are identical. So if one gets wiped out by a tornado, the other is going to be up and running,” Smith said. “The next-gen stuff is wonderful, but I am more excited about the capability to have an interconnected system, where we can all back each other up.”

This story was originally published by Emergency Management.