The new IP-based call delivery system, which went live in October 2011, delivers location data to call-takers more quickly, increased the number of lines available for calls, and once other PSAPs are capable of receiving them, it will let the county transfer calls and their associated data to other PSAPs.
Previously calls to 911 could only be transferred to PSAPs that use the same phone company. Otherwise calls had to be directed to a nonemergency line and call data would be lost, Davis said. “The caller’s name, phone number, address — all that had to be repeated before you could let them even start talking to the caller.”
Pittsylvania County received money from the Virginia Information Technologies Agency, which administers grants for the Virginia E-911 Services Board aimed at providing equipment and upgrades to PSAPs in the state. The grants supplied 80 percent of the funding for both the initial on-premise equipment replacement and the call delivery system.
Davis said he’s eager to see new enhancements that the future will bring, but he added that it will take funding from the state or federal level to make texting and all of the future benefits of NG911 a reality.
“Local governments are strapped. They are really burdened,” he said. “They can’t take all this on and do all these new adventures and not have the revenue to operate it.”
In addition to the technical improvements, Davis said, there will be expenses related to employee training and potentially more staff to successfully serve the public. “We just don’t need that to fall through the gap.”
The Bigger Picture
While in the past, PSAPs typically made arrangements with 911 service providers directly, the migration to NG911 may lead to more statewide or regional initiatives. Several states have either deployed or are deploying statewide IP networks for NG911. Wisely said that in many ways, NG911 cries out for such an approach because the costs of moving to the technology may be more than many local governments can bear on their own.
And 911 administrators will have other reasons to think on a larger scale.
New workflows created by the new types of data coming into PSAPs may lend themselves to having specialized call-takers that serve more than one PSAP, according to Fontes.
“When you look at their world, and then you start adding into that the opportunity to look at data and video,” he said, “it can add a great deal of complexity to their job.”
In some cases, Fontes said, it may make more sense for certain types of calls to be directed to a specialist — someone trained to handle video, for instance — and that person may field all of those calls for a PSAP or even several 911 call centers. “In a next-generation environment, you have the flexibility to have all of that expertise reside within an individual or have that expertise be split up among individuals.”
As the opportunities for easy call routing, transfer of location information and other data become more numerous, so will the possibilities for call-takers to answer calls from locations outside the traditional PSAP. If one PSAP becomes inoperable because of a disaster, a nearby call center could take over, but agreements would have to be in place. “Just because you have the ability to do things doesn’t mean it will happen automatically,” Wisely said. Because of the planning involved in these kinds of arrangements, many governments may not be especially eager to tackle them until they have to, but working with neighbors could be the most cost-effective and efficient way to serve the public.
The Funding Question
In the long term, it’s likely that NG911 systems will cost less to maintain than legacy systems. But upgrades will be costly, and agencies will likely need to maintain two systems for a while.
Adding to the financial challenges is the fact that as consumers shift to mobile phones, fees assessed to land line phones that have traditionally funded 911 are bringing in less money. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, more than a quarter of American households no longer have land line service. “In the wireless world, 911 fees may or may not be assessed to wireless carriers, depending on the state and community in which you live,” Fontes said. Making matters worse, prepaid wireless users are even less likely to pay fees, because most states don’t require it, yet prepaid users make up nearly one-quarter of wireless consumers. Fees collected from VoIP providers also are uneven. “Some of these services may be stand-alone services, such as Vonage, other services may be applications on your smartphone,” said Fontes. “Some pay; some do not.”