More than a decade ago, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) recognized the need for changes to the nation’s 911 systems.
The old systems had their jobs for decades, but in a world of wireless calling and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), the country needed more accommodating technology. Enter the concept of next-generation 911 (NG911), a system that would run on a secure Internet protocol-based network and allow texting, data transfer and more.
Since then, a generation of youngsters has grown up texting pals not only with words, but with pictures and videos as well. In fact, a 2011 Pew Internet survey found that 73 percent of cellphone users text, and nearly one-third of them would rather text than talk. In addition, many people with hearing and speech disabilities have abandoned TTY in favor of text messaging. Despite this phenomenon, just a small number of the nation’s 911 call centers run on secure emergency services IP-based networks, and just a handful of the centers have piloted technologies that allow the public to text 911.
So what’s taking so long?
The rapidly changing technology landscape has created a number of challenges that industry and government leaders are working to address. Planning and coordinating a system that will be interoperable — and the standard — is imperative to avoid confusion for consumers and ensure that systems work together. Early adopters have begun to lay the foundation for NG911 services, but much work remains to achieve fully functioning NG911 nationwide. Among the complications that must be resolved are the need for further standards development, regulatory hurdles and lack of funding.
Getting the Ball Rolling
Standards are critical to the efficient rollout of NG911. “Without a standard it’s challenging, No. 1, for a company or vendor to build something that is next-generation 911 compliant or compatible,” said Stephen Wisely, director of the International Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials’ Comm Center and 9-1-1 Services Department. “It’s almost impossible for a local government or regional government to spec out a system that is next-generation ready, and it’s almost impossible for a PSAP to buy new equipment that is next-generation capable.”
NENA has been crafting technical standards for NG911 since 2003. In 2011, its executive board formally ratified the i3 standards, which have provided direction for NG911’s underlying infrastructure and interoperability, but numerous technological matters remain to be worked out, including specific standards for sending text messages to 911.
NENA CEO Brian Fontes likens the i3 document to a blueprint: It’s a detailed vision of how to move forward, but there are bound to be changes. “When you put that blueprint out to a number of contractors that will be involved in building that building, they will come back and say, ‘We need to modify this. We need to change that.’”
Joe Hernandez, senior vice president of Intrado, a company that supplies 911 solutions to public safety answering points (PSAP) as well as telecom, VoIP and other communications providers, said the current standards are enough to set direction for the industry. “There are certain standards to get going — enough to get the ball rolling — and there are some that will be developed as we move forward.”
Hernandez said IP-based network deployments across the country are showing that it can be done, despite the challenges. “The bottom line is that the infrastructure is now proven,” Hernandez said. “The early adopter phase is done. It’s tested, it’s trialed, it’s proven, it’s in production.”
Hernandez cited Pittsylvania County, Va., as an example. Jim Davis, Pittsylvania County’s E911 director, said that when the county’s 911 equipment became outdated several years ago, it began looking at IP-based solutions. After installing IP-based equipment in the PSAP, the county started looking at call delivery systems and agreed to serve as a pilot for Intrado.
“There was really no one else out there that had a system ready to go for a network,” Davis said. “Intrado was in their research and design phase to build an IP-based 911 call delivery network.”
Rollout of the call-delivery system took about three years because there was a lot of testing and retesting to make sure all the components worked together, Davis said. The county ran two systems in parallel while the kinks were being worked out to ensure that public safety was not impacted.
“Yet it did allow us to have what we have today: a final product that I am extremely pleased with,” Davis said.