Urgent Matters

Coordinating cybersecurity efforts between 911 and FirstNet promises to be critical for public safety


Cybersecurity promises to be a major challenge for public safety as it migrates to IP-based FirstNet and next-generation 911 technologies. Given the constant future need to transport sensitive information between the two networks on constant basis, developing a coordinated cybersecurity strategy for 911, FirstNet and the important interface between the systems is critical.

A couple of days ago, we posted a video interview regarding considerations associated with the consolidation of public-safety answering points (PSAPs), which is a very important—and complex—topic in the public-safety communications arena. For some in the industry, it is a very touchy subject.

At the heart of the PSAP-consolidation discussion is a simple question: Does it make sense to continue having more than 6,000 PSAPs in the United States receiving 911 calls and dispatching first responders?

On the surface, the answer may seem just as straightforward: No, we don’t need 6,000 PSAPs. But the operational, logistical and political realities associated with trying to consolidate PSAPs are anything but straightforward. Those realities are even more difficult to overcome in a physical-consolidation initiative, which can require the construction/renovation of a new facility—often an expensive proposition—to house all personnel.

Given all of these complications, it is understandable that the FCC’s Task Force on Optimal PSAP Architecture (TFOPA) opted not to address the consolidation issue in its final report.

However, the TFOPA report includes a heavy dose of information outlining the importance of PSAPs sharing certain services, whether a given PSAP is part of a physical consolidation or even a virtual consolidation, which can occur when separate PSAP locations can coordinate in real time via high-speed connectivity that is a fundamental tenet for NG911.

For instance, the NG911 IP-based platform is designed to let 911 centers receive pictures and videos. While this is potentially valuable information,  But most PSAP directors do not want their call-takers to be charged with processing images and video while handling an emergency call, for a variety of reasons. Having a team of image/video experts—preferably with help from a public-safety officer to assess what is important and what is not—process the video and distribute key images to first responders would be ideal.

Of course, it is not practical for every PSAP to find the funds necessary to pay for a dedicated video/image team that is housed on site, not to mention the fact that it may be difficult to find enough people with the appropriate expertise that can be available around the clock.

However, it may be possible for a cluster of PSAPs—maybe 5, 10 or 50 call centers, depending on traffic patterns and connectivity—to use a single video/image-processing facility, which can reduce the cost per PSAP significantly. The concept already is used by PSAPs today, as foreign-language expertise is shared by multiple PSAPs to deal with 911 calls from people who do not speak English.

This same concept needs to be extended to cybersecurity in 911 centers, as recommended by TFOPA in its report.

Discuss this Blog Entry 1

GBH (not verified)
on Jul 8, 2016

I listen to the radio traffic from my local PSAP all the time. That job is one where local knowledge is really prized. You can tell that the dispatching is much more efficient when the dispatcher knows the area they are dispatching. In the utility business, where I do telecommunications work, radio traffic between mobiles and dispatch fell dramatically when local dispatch was consolidated. I believe that had a lot to do with the dispatchers now having a lot less local knowledge. That personal relationship and trust between local personnel is invaluable too

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.


Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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