Next-Gen 911: Two States, Two Approaches to Implementation

Connecticut and Kansas are working to install next-generation 911 systems, which some say are a necessity in an ever-burgeoning wireless mobile society.

by Douglas J. Guth / October 24, 2014
Kansas has completed next-generation 911 pilot studies and is working to implement the technology statewide. In this photo, a Sedgwick County 911 operator works in Wichita's downtown public safety building last year. Travis Heying/Wichita Eagle/MCT

A citizen at the scene of a car accident sends a text to 911 along with a follow-up smartphone video surveying the damage. Both the text and video stream are routed to a local 911 center. Police and emergency responders arrive on location, armed with the up-to-the-second information that could save lives.

This scenario could play out in Kansas and Connecticut, two states currently installing next-generation 911 (NG911) telephone systems at hundreds of emergency call centers. Though at different stages of implementing the technology, NG911 supporters from both states believe the new arrangement is a needed evolution from an increasingly outdated system.

Ready to Roll

Connecticut will roll out NG911 on a pilot basis at 10 public safety answering points (PSAPs) during the first quarter of 2015. Over the following 12 to 18 months, the system will be installed in all of the state's 104 emergency call centers, said Stephen Verbil, telecommunications manager for Connecticut's Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.

While the existing narrowband, circuit-switched 911 network has worked satisfactorily since its inception 30 years ago, it has been stretched to its limit as technology advances, Verbil said. Unlike current voice-centric 911 capabilities, the new classification will allow text-to-911 and eventually, the distribution of video and images through those same emergency channels. However, video will not be available until the FCC requires carriers to add it.

This more diverse set of Internet protocol-based communication is designed for seamless, location-based routing and information sharing between 911 centers and the response teams they're communicating with, Verbil said. In time, local 911 centers will also be able to receive automated data from in-vehicle crash notification systems like OnStar.

"We have software and equipment that's 12 years old and hasn't been supported for a while," Verbil said. "Next-gen 911 is going to eliminate any boundary issues we had."

Connecticut's NG911 system will utilize the state's public safety data network, a transport infrastructure consisting of 8,800 fiber miles. The testing phase will run until the end of March at the 10 pilot PSAPs. The state's remaining call centers will then swap systems, with complete shutdown of the legacy network wrapping up by the end of 2016.

The first two pilot centers to go online will test text-to-911 usage. Verbil points to Vermont, which implemented a modern IP-based network linking its eight PSAPs and uses texting as part of a broader push to enhance the information that can be provided to responders.

About 70 percent of Connecticut's 911 calls are made from cellphones, reported Verbil. Though talking to a dispatcher is preferable during an emergency, texting can be a viable option during certain domestic situations or if the user is hearing-impaired, he said. 

The state has been readying its PSAPs for the cut-over for the last year. Each center has different needs in terms of workflow and installation, while many lack data-ready spaces to support the sensitive servers connecting PSAPs to NG911's vast fiber-optic web. "The older equipment could be stored in a boiler room," Verbil said. "Now [PSAPs] need data center-style rooms that are properly powered and cooled."

The state's original plan was to have next-gen test programs running by last summer, but Frontier Communications' purchase of NG911 vendor AT&T's wireless operations in Connecticut delayed implementation. For now, municipalities are receiving equipment and training for the state-mandated emergency services program. The process may be complicated, but end-users who need to call for help will not notice the difference.

"It should be seamless for people," said Verbil. "They'll dial 911 and it's going to work for them."

Building a Better Phone System

Changes to 911 protocols are also afoot in the nation's breadbasket. After successfully completing a pilot study of NG911 capabilities, Kansas is working to deploy the program statewide, said Walter Way, director of emergency communications for Johnson County.

With Kansas' 105 counties and 117 PSAPs 911-capable, the state is studying pilot data to ensure that NG911 is compliant with the National Emergency Number Association, which is developing the i3 architecture that emergency system vendors will follow.

The Kansas Office of Information Technology Services has partnered with the state's NG911 Coordinating Council to design and build a sustainable next-gen offering. The pilot program, launched in 2012, tested NG911 at three sites. As a proof of concept, the program transferred emergency calls across phone networks in an efficient manner, said Way.

The next step is finding a vendor to carry the service, an enterprise that should be completed before the end of the year. Six to 10 PSAPs will be using NG911 by next summer, with the remaining call centers coming onboard as they so choose. Kansas is run by local rule, meaning unlike Connecticut, each individual PSAP has leave to opt out of the program.

(Purchasers of NG911 systems are generally counties or states that control PSAPs. Many states have centrally organized their call centers in order to conduct all-encompassing NG911 upgrades, while others elect to purchase NG911 upgrades on a PSAP-by-PSAP basis or through regional coalitions.)

"We expect most PSAPs to come on in, as they're going to have to replace their old equipment," said Way of the rollout that will take two to five years to fully put into operation. "We're basically building a big phone system, but it's a secured intranet phone system."

Kansas will also harness three large vendor-provided data centers, located both in and out of state, to store servers and other NG911 components. Akin to cloud computing, the venture would save jurisdictions money on expensive background gear, Way said. Depending on the number of PSAPs involved, the upgrade will cost $12 million to $22 million, with funding procured in part from a statewide grant fund.

Kansas is collaborating with municipalities on updating geographic information systems so map displays, call routing and address verification are properly synchronized. Accuracy is a challenge, and project proponents are espousing regionalization and cost-share systems among PSAPs for the new network. In Way's hometown of Kansas City, Kan., 43 PSAPs are sharing 911 duties within the old format, he said.

The overarching vision of Kansas' NG911 system is a virtual map used to route 911 calls throughout the state. Smartphones, tablets and other mobile technology will send critical knowledge in situations where seconds can make a major difference. Way can see NG911 become a kind of Amber Alert during a kidnapping scenario, as a picture of the victim would be transmitted from dispatcher to responder with the touch of a button.

Regardless of how it's employed, NG911 is a necessity in an ever-burgeoning wireless mobile society, the communications official believes.

"The plan is ready," he said. "We need to bring 911 centers up to 21st-century technology."

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland-based freelance writer and journalist.

This story was originally published by Emergency Management

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