North Dakota Launches Local Solution for Statewide Next-Gen 911

Having buy-in from all the stakeholders around the technology that should be used in public safety access points likely will make for a better-run network.

by / October 31, 2014

North Dakota’s oil boom has brought wealth and economic opportunities to the upper Midwestern state -- but it’s also brought problems. Call volume for 911 emergencies have increased every year since 2005, including a 19 percent jump in calls since 2009 alone. Much of that growth is attributed to a surge in emergency calls in the oil producing counties. And nearly 70 percent of the 250,000 emergency calls are now made on cellphones, which are harder to locate than a 911 call made on a landline.

With the right technology, 911 dispatchers could locate emergencies called in on cellphones more easily, as well as handle 911 text messages, even photos that could aid first responders. Calling the current legacy 911 system “limited,” the state’s public safety access points, known as PSAPs, have announced plans to roll out next-generation 911 (NG 911) technology in the coming months, according to Jason Horning, 911 program manager for the North Dakota Association of Counties (NDACO).

“We’re trying to build a network that can flow information faster and with more data,” he said. “At some point in the future, that information could be a photo of a missing child sent with a text message instead of a voice phone call.”

North Dakota does not have a centralized state authority charged with deploying new initiatives, such as NG 911, so NDACO is doing the work on behalf of the state’s 22 local PSAPs. This unique relationship is the result of a joint powers agreement among the PSAPs that allows NDACO to oversee the implementation of NG 911, the first phase of which will involve installing IP connectivity in the call centers by spring 2015. 

Infrastructure for the project will include selective routers from CenturyLink that will handle both wireless and landline traffic, sending calls to the proper PSAP based on GPS data instead of address location. The architecture for North Dakota’s NG 911 project will allow the state to provide redundant and reliable 911 service among its various dispatch centers.

North Dakota is one of the first states to plan a statewide NG 911 system. Other states that have statewide solutions include Vermont, Washington and Minnesota.

IP connectivity for the PSAPs is just the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of upgrading the call centers, according to Horning, who said the biggest phase will be building the various databases that will enable the call centers to not just locate cellphone calls, but also handle text messages, photos and other types of attachments and, eventually, video streams.

But new technology isn’t cheap. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that to upgrade every call center in the country to NG 911 will cost nearly $3 billion. North Dakota expects to spend $1.2 million on the initial rollout of NG 911.  

The biggest challenge will be pulling together the GIS data needed to establish an effective system. “Most of the GIS data is now local, but next-generation 911 is bigger than that,” said Horning. “It’s going to be the entire state. Instead of having many silos [of geographic information], we have to build one big silo that feeds the various networks.”

Horning noted that the database will be so challenging because it has “so many touch points” involving so many different parties to ensure proper management maintenance. But he believes North Dakota’s history of providing locally run 911 services makes it well-suited to not just roll out the new technology, but to also manage it.

“We’re proud of how we’ve done this. The counties control 911 and it’s a better strategy in the long run,” said Horning. “When you have buy-in from all the stakeholders around the technology that should be used, how to manage the PSAPs, it makes for a better run network.”

Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.

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