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911 Centers Report Highlights Cyber, NG 911, Staff Issues

The report from the firm Mission Critical Partners lays out a plethora of issues facing 911 call centers, including personnel issues, cyber attacks and the difficult transition from legacy technology to NG 911.

Dispatchers and call takers with the Los Angeles County Fire Department answer 911 calls from the public.
Jason Pack DHS/FEMA News Photo
Public Safety Answering Points (PSAP), or 911 centers, face a multitude of challenges and threats in the face of increasing pressure to improve efficiency, including staffing challenges, deploying next-generation 911 systems, and the threat of cyber attacks by bad actors.

Those challenges and a plethora of others are discussed in the 2022 Model for Advancing Public Safety (MAPS) Analysis and Insights report by the Mission Critical Partners firm.

It is imperative that 911 centers address the cybersecurity issue because not doing so can end up costing millions of dollars to recover. For example, the ransomware attack on Atlanta in 2018 that destroyed years worth of data and shut down multiple services ended up costing the city $2.7 million in recovery services.

From a physical security standpoint, 911 centers have it down. They understand security when it comes to guns, guards and gates. But when deploying NG 911 systems and introducing IP networks, they are creating cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

“On the cyber side, that’s really where we’re talking about the people, the planning, the policy and the procedure,” said Darrin Reilly, president and CEO of Mission Critical Partners. “As they move to NG 911, you’re introducing an Internet protocol-based mesh network to handle multimedia data that actually provides an entry for bad actors.”

Centers should have an annual assessment from an outside entity to ensure they are protected, according to Reilly. He said call centers should address the cyber issue the way cities, counties, states and other entities address finances and have “audits” annually.
“No, I don’t think we’re moving nearly as fast as the industry should be moving on this, hands down,” Reilly said. “We’re behind and the alarms have to be sounding to have these agencies put together assessments.”

And those assessments should be done by an independent entity, he said. “For some reason, I hear far too many times, ‘Oh, no our IT department has it,’ and very often that comes from the IT department,” Reilly said. “That should not be accepted.”

PSAPs all across the country are also facing personnel issues both hiring and retaining staff for a variety of reasons, including pay, benefits and the increased challenges brought by multimedia needs in the call centers.

One solution is to leverage technology to aid the human side of the equation in taking the calls. For example, of about 240 million inbound 911 calls from some 6,000 PSAPs around the country, about 10 percent of those calls come from alarms, either commercial or residential. Instead of all those calls going directly to a call-taker, they could go into a CAD system without manual intervention and then into the response queue.

“So, you’re offloading some of those calls away from the call-taker within the centers,” Reilly said. “It would still be responded to but in more of an automated way.”

Another answer is a managed services solution where the IT department for a city, county or state supports other agencies including public safety.

And, of course, adapting to current times and being able to handle multimedia data by deploying NG 911 systems is a struggle going on all across the country. It’s not an easy transition, one where cost and procedures can make it a lengthy process. And it’s a process where cost and planning go hand in hand.

“It’s not like you can just switch and be ready to go,” Reilly said. “Really, there has to be some level of overlap from the legacy system that they’re running, and as they transition to next gen, they are supporting two systems.”

It’s difficult for agencies to plan for the deployment of NG 911 technology and then make that transition. “It’s challenging for some of these agencies for how best to plan for that reality, that as cost goes up during transition, it will go down over time,” Reilly said. “That’s something that takes an incredible amount of planning to be able to do.”