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Next-Generation 911 Is Finally Poised to Take Off

Although much work remains nationwide, several states are in the process of deploying statewide IP networks for NG911.

by / April 13, 2012
Photo courtesy of Jason Peck/FEMA Jason Peck/FEMA

More than a decade ago, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) recognized the need for changes to the nation’s 911 systems.

The old systems had their jobs for decades, but in a world of wireless calling and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), the country needed more accommodating technology. Enter the concept of next-generation 911 (NG911), a system that would run on a secure Internet protocol-based network and allow texting, data transfer and more.

Since then, a generation of youngsters has grown up texting pals not only with words, but with pictures and videos as well. In fact, a 2011 Pew Internet survey found that 73 percent of cellphone users text, and nearly one-third of them would rather text than talk. In addition, many people with hearing and speech disabilities have abandoned TTY in favor of text messaging. Despite this phenomenon, just a small number of the nation’s 911 call centers run on secure emergency services IP-based networks, and just a handful of the centers have piloted technologies that allow the public to text 911.

So what’s taking so long?

The rapidly changing technology landscape has created a number of challenges that industry and government leaders are working to address. Planning and coordinating a system that will be interoperable — and the standard — is imperative to avoid confusion for consumers and ensure that systems work together. Early adopters have begun to lay the foundation for NG911 services, but much work remains to achieve fully functioning NG911 nationwide. Among the complications that must be resolved are the need for further standards development, regulatory hurdles and lack of funding.

Getting the Ball Rolling

Standards are critical to the efficient rollout of NG911. “Without a standard it’s challenging, No. 1, for a company or vendor to build something that is next-generation 911 compliant or compatible,” said Stephen Wisely, director of the International Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials’ Comm Center and 9-1-1 Services Department. “It’s almost impossible for a local government or regional government to spec out a system that is next-generation ready, and it’s almost impossible for a PSAP to buy new equipment that is next-generation capable.”

NENA has been crafting technical standards for NG911 since 2003. In 2011, its executive board formally ratified the i3 standards, which have provided direction for NG911’s underlying infrastructure and interoperability, but numerous technological matters remain to be worked out, including specific standards for sending text messages to 911.

NENA CEO Brian Fontes likens the i3 document to a blueprint: It’s a detailed vision of how to move forward, but there are bound to be changes. “When you put that blueprint out to a number of contractors that will be involved in building that building, they will come back and say, ‘We need to modify this. We need to change that.’”

Joe Hernandez, senior vice president of Intrado, a company that supplies 911 solutions to public safety answering points (PSAP) as well as telecom, VoIP and other communications providers, said the current standards are enough to set direction for the industry. “There are certain standards to get going — enough to get the ball rolling — and there are some that will be developed as we move forward.”

Hernandez said IP-based network deployments across the country are showing that it can be done, despite the challenges. “The bottom line is that the infrastructure is now proven,” Hernandez said. “The early adopter phase is done. It’s tested, it’s trialed, it’s proven, it’s in production.”

Pittsylvania’s Pilot

Hernandez cited Pittsylvania County, Va., as an example. Jim Davis, Pittsylvania County’s E911 director, said that when the county’s 911 equipment became outdated several years ago, it began looking at IP-based solutions. After installing IP-based equipment in the PSAP, the county started looking at call delivery systems and agreed to serve as a pilot for Intrado.

“There was really no one else out there that had a system ready to go for a network,” Davis said. “Intrado was in their research and design phase to build an IP-based 911 call delivery network.”

Rollout of the call-delivery system took about three years because there was a lot of testing and retesting to make sure all the components worked together, Davis said. The county ran two systems in parallel while the kinks were being worked out to ensure that public safety was not impacted.

“Yet it did allow us to have what we have today: a final product that I am extremely pleased with,” Davis said.

The new IP-based call delivery system, which went live in October 2011, delivers location data to call-takers more quickly, increased the number of lines available for calls, and once other PSAPs are capable of receiving them, it will let the county transfer calls and their associated data to other PSAPs.

Previously calls to 911 could only be transferred to PSAPs that use the same phone company. Otherwise calls had to be directed to a nonemergency line and call data would be lost, Davis said. “The caller’s name, phone number, address — all that had to be repeated before you could let them even start talking to the caller.”

Pittsylvania County received money from the Virginia Information Technologies Agency, which administers grants for the Virginia E-911 Services Board aimed at providing equipment and upgrades to PSAPs in the state. The grants supplied 80 percent of the funding for both the initial on-premise equipment replacement and the call delivery system.

Davis said he’s eager to see new enhancements that the future will bring, but he added that it will take funding from the state or federal level to make texting and all of the future benefits of NG911 a reality.

“Local governments are strapped. They are really burdened,” he said. “They can’t take all this on and do all these new adventures and not have the revenue to operate it.”

In addition to the technical improvements, Davis said, there will be expenses related to employee training and potentially more staff to successfully serve the public. “We just don’t need that to fall through the gap.”

The Bigger Picture

While in the past, PSAPs typically made arrangements with 911 service providers directly, the migration to NG911 may lead to more statewide or regional initiatives. Several states have either deployed or are deploying statewide IP networks for NG911. Wisely said that in many ways, NG911 cries out for such an approach because the costs of moving to the technology may be more than many local governments can bear on their own.

And 911 administrators will have other reasons to think on a larger scale.

New workflows created by the new types of data coming into PSAPs may lend themselves to having specialized call-takers that serve more than one PSAP, according to Fontes.

“When you look at their world, and then you start adding into that the opportunity to look at data and video,” he said, “it can add a great deal of complexity to their job.”

In some cases, Fontes said, it may make more sense for certain types of calls to be directed to a specialist — someone trained to handle video, for instance — and that person may field all of those calls for a PSAP or even several 911 call centers. “In a next-generation environment, you have the flexibility to have all of that expertise reside within an individual or have that expertise be split up among individuals.”

As the opportunities for easy call routing, transfer of location information and other data become more numerous, so will the possibilities for call-takers to answer calls from locations outside the traditional PSAP. If one PSAP becomes inoperable because of a disaster, a nearby call center could take over, but agreements would have to be in place. “Just because you have the ability to do things doesn’t mean it will happen automatically,” Wisely said. Because of the planning involved in these kinds of arrangements, many governments may not be especially eager to tackle them until they have to, but working with neighbors could be the most cost-effective and efficient way to serve the public.

The Funding Question

In the long term, it’s likely that NG911 systems will cost less to maintain than legacy systems. But upgrades will be costly, and agencies will likely need to maintain two systems for a while.

Adding to the financial challenges is the fact that as consumers shift to mobile phones, fees assessed to land line phones that have traditionally funded 911 are bringing in less money. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, more than a quarter of American households no longer have land line service. “In the wireless world, 911 fees may or may not be assessed to wireless carriers, depending on the state and community in which you live,” Fontes said. Making matters worse, prepaid wireless users are even less likely to pay fees, because most states don’t require it, yet prepaid users make up nearly one-quarter of wireless consumers. Fees collected from VoIP providers also are uneven. “Some of these services may be stand-alone services, such as Vonage, other services may be applications on your smartphone,” said Fontes. “Some pay; some do not.”

The FCC included the question of funding in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which it released in October to gather input on how to speed the transition to NG911. The federal government has provided some grants in the past to help states and PSAPs move toward next-generation systems.

However, Fontes said the federal government is unlikely to fund the transition. “Right now our country’s in a severe debt crisis, if you will, and to think that Congress is going to immediately step in and fund all of this would probably be a false assumption.”

Fontes believes that a Blue Ribbon Panel — an idea that was proposed by the FCC’s Communications Security, Reliability and Interoperability Council — is the best way to find a solution. “When you get experts together with that goal in mind,” he said, “they’ll come out with a series of options on how best to fund NG911 that will work.”

Statewide Network in Indiana

In Indiana, cellphone subscribers pay a monthly 50-cent fee for 911 services. The subscriber fees, which were originally set at 65 cents per wireless subscriber in the 1990s, helped Indiana fund a statewide network aimed at bringing more efficiency to wireless 911 call routing, as well as funding PSAP needs. The IP-based network, called IN911, has undergone several upgrades over the years — the latest took place in 2010 and allowed full support for multimedia emergency services such as text and images. In addition to subscriber fees, Indiana received a $1.56 million federal grant two years ago that helped with the network upgrade along with projects in some of the state’s PSAPs. Indiana also imposed a 25 cent per transaction fee for prepaid wireless in 2010.

Currently 92 counties are connected to the network and can transfer calls and their associated data. In addition, IN911 now supports some wireline calls and other IP-based services, including connections to national crime databases.

Mark Grady, president of INdigital, the company commissioned by the Indiana Wireless e911 Advisory Board to build and operate the network, said the lightly regulated environment in Indiana was very conducive to building the network. The state developed legislation in the late 1990s that provided liability limitations for service providers and allowed Indiana to move forward without running into a lot of regulatory hurdles that exist in other states.

However, the state ran into a long legal battle with one carrier. PSAPs in that carrier’s territory have not connected to the statewide network, but according to Barry Ritter, executive director of the Wireless e911 Advisory Board, the state has reached an agreement with the carrier that will allow Indiana’s remaining PSAPs to enjoy the same benefits.

“We’ve established what we’re calling a ‘functional direct connect,’” Ritter said, adding that the arrangement will connect the PSAPs via that provider’s network and allow all PSAPs in the state to transfer calls with data.

Grady said the board is now asking the Indiana Legislature to update the 911 statute to provide liability limitations for nonvoice technologies and require that subscribers with any device capable of making a 911 call be subject to subscriber fees.

“Generally we’re just going in this year to modernize our state legislation — to make sure that we have the flexibility for the next 15 years as technology continues to change and move ahead,” Grady said.

The state is rolling out the texting capability, but Grady said Indiana is taking a cautious approach. Texting can be initiated by the 911 call-taker once a traditional voice call has been placed, but the public will not be able to directly text 911 — at least not yet. In addition to liability limitations, Grady said technology standards and location-awareness issues related to text messaging also must be ironed out, and call-takers may not be ready to add nonvoice communication to their already stressful workload.

“We’re letting call-takers determine what and how much they want to get,” Grady said.

Though many things have yet to be resolved with NG911, the foundation is being laid for the technology and the momentum is building. According to Intrado’s Hernandez, 911 operators will have a variety of options, including building and maintaining their own networks and contracting with a provider. But the infrastructure itself is a known entity. “There are enough deployments out there that for those who are questioning how do I do this, there are answers for them to determine how they get this new 911 deployed in their jurisdiction. We’re no longer in that early adopter phase; we are now rolling this out in a very big way across the country.”

This article was originally published by Emergency Management.

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