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Nebraska's Long Haul to Implement Next-Generation 911

The Public Service Commission and its contractor are working to gather experts to address key obstacles to the rollout of statewide next-generation 911.

In 2017, the Nebraska Public Service Commission embarked on a quest to convince lawmakers to update the state’s 911 system from one reliant on phone calls to an adaptable, modern service that could respond to, for example, a text message in emergencies.

The commission, with the help of consultants from Mission Critical Partners [MCP], presented a 911 Service System, Next Generation 911 Master Plan to the Nebraska Legislature, which passed a bill approving the outline in 2018.

That’s when the real work began, said Dave Sankey, director of the State 911 Department. Sankey said that with the aid of MCP, which also won the contract to consult on next-generation 911 implementation, a five-prong approach is being used to overcome current obstacles to a new system.

These five working groups have each been tasked with tackling an issue related to the members’ area of expertise. Problems in need of solutions include: an RFP for contractual services, which will be used to select a contractor to install the next-generation 911 hardware and software; how to pay for a statewide system and reconfigure an outdated wireless 911 funding model; the establishment of baseline policies and guidelines for public-safety answering points [PSAPs]; an outline for minimum training standards and a statewide certification program; and aligning the geographic information systems [GIS] within the state.

Eric Caddy, an MCP spokesman, said the working groups will be led by members of the 911 Service System Advisory Committee and include Nebraskan stakeholders who will give local, logistical input and MCP-provided subject-matter experts who will relay nationwide trends.

“The working groups are really designed to work through the minutiae, if you will, of some of these topics and then bring their recommendations back to the committee,” Caddy said. “The committee is then responsible to make those recommendations to the Public Service Commission.”

The highest hurdles to next-generation 911 implementation are GIS and a better funding model, Sankey said. GIS relies on GPS coordinates delivered to dispatchers when a 911 phone call is dialed. Some PSAPs in the state use outside vendors to provide this information and others use in-house systems. The work group’s task is to consolidate these varying methods and create a statewide tool to locate those in need of help during emergencies.

“One of our challenges that we’re trying to get on top of right away is getting our GIS data in a position where we can geospatially locate and route callers. We have a lot of work to do in that area,” Sankey said. “Once those [calls] are received, you’ll be able to locate the caller and route the caller to the appropriate PSAP based on the GIS data that you’ve developed in your state.”

He said that optimistically, next-generation 911 could be fully implemented in Nebraska as early as 2022. The goal of the commission is to have the system online within three to five years, he said.

The commission oversees a 911 revenue stream, with money coming in from cellphone users and the upfront cost of a prepaid cellphone and minutes cards. But the formula hasn’t been modernized to reflect the present-day volume of cellphone users. Both Sankey and Caddy agree that next-generation 911 in Nebraska needs a new funding model to support it long term.

“How do we transition that to a new funding mechanism where we fund a statewide system using, at least right now, only the wireless 911 dollars?” Sankey said. “That’s the direction that we’ve been tasked with moving forward on, and one of the things that we’re going to work with our committee is trying to develop a new 911 funding mechanism for the statewide system.”

The implementation process will see 69 locally controlled and operated PSAPs coming together to form eight to 10 regions; so far there are six regions. Each region will have two hosts, where the hardware is located, and other PSAPs will connect remotely via a statewide ESInet, which is a broadband-enabled network capable of transmitting video, images and other bandwidth-intensive data.

“Our idea is once we have our statewide ESInet that we would then connect the host PSAPs to that ESInet,” Sankey said. “We see that as a real cost-saving measure because then we’re not connecting all 69 PSAPs to our ESInet and paying for the connection costs for all those PSAPs to join. We’re just paying the connection costs for the hosts to connect to the statewide ESInet. We believe it’s a good way to both save money for the PSAPs and for the state and to provide that redundancy that our PSAPs need.”

Patrick Groves was a staff writer for Government Technology from 2019 to 2020.
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