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Next-Generation 911 Is a Game-Changer

NG911 arguably is the most important technological advancement in public safety communications since mobile radios first were implemented.

by David Jones / November 19, 2014

Next-generation 911 (NG911) arguably is the most important technological advancement in public safety communications since mobile radios first were implemented in emergency response vehicles nearly a century ago. This technology truly is a game-changer for the first response community.

Many emergency managers think of NG911 only in terms of text-to-911, which will greatly benefit the deaf, hard-of-hearing and speech-impaired community. But there’s much more to NG911 than the ability to send emergency texts. This technology will enable:

  • streaming video to and from first responders in the field;
  • transmission of data-intensive files, such as building floor plans, to incident commanders;
  • monitoring first responders’ biometric data;
  • the ability to reroute calls to a neighboring public safety answering point (PSAP) when necessary; and
  • sharing information between PSAPs.

All of this is designed to help first responders do their jobs better and keep them safer. However, as exciting as these capabilities are, it is vital that emergency managers understand that NG911 also is a game-changer in terms of how they think and operate. The implementation of NG911 technology will require a wholesale change in the way that emergency calls are processed and administered.

For example, let’s consider how 911 calls are routed. In the legacy environment, location information that tells the selective router where to send the 911 call is provided by the wireline or wireless commercial carriers. In the case of wireline carriers, the information is generated by billing data. In the case of wireless carriers, location information is generated primarily by the GPS chipsets contained in wireless handsets. While some may believe that the accuracy of location information is less than it should be, what is clear is that this is not something that emergency managers traditionally have needed to be concerned about — it has been the sole responsibility of the commercial carriers.

That’s going to change. In the future, NG911 location data will be generated by GIS technology that leverages numerous databases, all of which will be the responsibility of the PSAP. This means that emergency managers will face an important decision as they contemplate a transition to NG911: implement GIS technology in-house and manage the databases themselves, or outsource this task to a third party. If agencies choose the former, they will control their destiny. However, most have little to no experience in managing databases, which will make the task much more challenging. While choosing the latter option will remove this responsibility from the agency, it will create another of critical importance, as selecting the wrong vendor could have dire consequences, including the loss of life.

None of this should dissuade any agency from migrating to NG911 technology, which represents a huge leap forward in public safety communications. Indeed, the transition to the next generation of 911 may be inevitable for most agencies, largely because the legacy circuit-switched equipment used by wireline carriers to provision 911 service is being phased out in favor of IP technology. Why is this happening? Because IP technologies are standards-based and provide reliability, redundancy and resiliency that legacy technologies can’t offer.

While agencies may be able to put off the NG911 migration for the short term, they likely won’t be able to avoid it forever. The sooner they begin the migration, the sooner first responders and citizens will benefit from this advanced technology. Change can be scary, but it also can pay great dividends. In the world of public safety communications, NG911 truly is a game-changer.

David Jones is senior vice president for Mission Critical Partners Inc., a public safety communications consulting firm.

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