Urgent Matters

How many PSAPs do we need? O’Rielly’s challenge could portend a new era for 911 operations

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FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly last week suggested that a task force consider massive consolidation of the nation's 5,900 public-safety answering points (PSAPs). Whether O'Rielly is seeking physical or virtual consolidation of 911 call centers could determine the practicality of his vision. 

On the surface, it appeared like it would be a pretty straightforward kickoff meeting of another new FCC task force with an uncomfortably long name: the Task Force on Optimal Public Safety Answering Point Architecture, or TFOPA (my guess is that someone correctly decided TFOPSAPA was too cumbersome).

Now, public-safety answering point (PSAP) architecture is an important topic, particularly with next-generation 911 getting deployed throughout the country. But the initial meeting for most entities is fairly predictable, with members introducing themselves, an organizational structure being established and broad topics for the group to consider identified.

All of that happened, with a twist provided by FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who said the task force should consider significant consolidation of the nation’s 5,900 PSAPs.

“I’ve discussed this issue for years with experts in the field and, more recently, with experts at both the commission and outside,” O’Rielly said during the meeting, which was webcast and is available for archived viewing. “If we were to build a PSAP system today from scratch—knowing what we know about network architecture and emergency communications—there would likely be considerably fewer PSAPs.

“By some estimate, the current structure would be able to operate at optimal efficiency with as few as three [PSAPs] nationwide. Others argue that there should be no more than one [PSAP] per state. Part of your task is to help determine the number of PSAPs that are necessary to operate an efficient network and do so to the best of your ability, absent political considerations. In other words, this function is to create a baseline upon which to measure PSAP modernization as we convert to [next-generation 911].”

Three PSAPs nationwide or one PSAP per state? Such an aggressive stance was not something that task-force members were expecting, according to Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and a member of the task force.

“I don’t think anybody knew that [O’Rielly would make his consolidation statement,” Fontes said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “I was there at the meeting and looked around. There were a bunch of wide eyes around the table, as if people were going, ‘What?’

“I think the commissioner threw out a challenge—in other words, to think outside of the box. Is consolidation doable? If so, how should it be done? Are we talking about physical consolidation, governance consolidation or something else? I think that’s what his intent was, but the way he expressed it certainly got a lot of people’s attention.”

Indeed, my suspicion is that O’Rielly’s statement will have members and stakeholders of the 911 community monitoring the work of TFOPA much more closely than they would have otherwise—and that’s a good thing. This is an important topic on many levels and is deserving of healthy debate from all relevant angles.

As for the notion of massive consolidation on the scale that O’Rielly mentioned, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would support all 911 calls being received in three physical locations. After all, we’re just three months removed from David Simpson—chief of the FCC’s public-safety and homeland-security bureau—criticizing 911 vendor Intrado for having just two hubs for routing emergency calls, suggesting that the capability should be distributed more evenly throughout the country.

A similar argument can be made regarding the notion of one PSAP physical location per state.

One thing is clear: No one should expect the number of 911 workers to shrink, no matter how PSAPs are configured. The need for emergency help will not decrease, and the introduction of video and photo capabilities will create a need for more personnel, not less.

What’s not clear is what Fontes noted in his comments: What did O’Rielly mean by “PSAP”? If we’re talking about physical buildings, there are opportunities for consolidation—that’s been happening for years—but they are limited and likely will take a lengthy time to implement. However, there are plenty of opportunities to consolidate the governance and resource availability of existing PSAPs much more quickly, particularly with next-generation 911.

That’s because the foundation of next-gen 911 is an IP-based architecture connecting PSAPs with broadband links. This design allows multiple PSAPs to share resources in real time, something that has been implemented in several locations. With this capability, a call-taker from PSAP A can handle calls in PSAP B without physically being at PSAP B—an important capability when PSAP B has heavy call volumes or is missing personnel due to sickness or vacation.

This structure can translate to added functional capability, as well. Fontes is one of many 911 officials who believe that video sent to 911 can be processed most efficiently by trained specialists, instead of potentially overwhelming a call-taker with the task. In addition, a group of PSAP locations can combine their efforts to increase their buying power when purchasing equipment and services.

When such PSAP locations agree to coordinate resources and capabilities, are the participating call centers still separate PSAPs, or is the group really a single “virtual” PSAP? If the grouping is considered a single virtual PSAP, the potential for significant consolidation is enormous, and it could happen much more quickly than physical consolidation.

Some physical consolidation of PSAPs seems inevitable, if only because some smaller PSAPs may not be able to afford the necessary technical or operational infrastructure to migrate to next-gen 911. But the potential for virtual consolidation—thereby maintaining the resiliency associated with 911’s geographic diversity—offers intriguing possibilities that TFOPA and other 911 officials should consider carefully.

 

Discuss this Blog Entry 4

Anonymous (not verified)
on Feb 3, 2015

The ability to consolidate is a driver for operational management to step up a be able to define a tiered approach to call management. Of course 9-1-1 can become consolidated among many centers. But it requires interest and the effort upon all agencies to define the most common factors that can parse a call quickly and then have it end up into the right center and right skill set. 9-1-1 is already parsed tight out of the gate by asking "Fire-Medical-Police ?". The discussion, as opposed to any directives coming from a federal level, need to happen. Whether or not NENA and others realize it or not, but back in 2010, by asking the Federal Government to help intervene at a state level with "funding raids", this is the price to be paid. Federal intervention. Its time for the agencies to choose between "federal help" or going back and finding a way to mitigate the "local" funding issues.

Jack Markey (not verified)
on Mar 5, 2015

While the function of taking 9-1-1 calls is one part of the PSAP function that you could argue (technologically) could be more efficiently handled by a smaller number of centers, it fundamentally misunderstands the other roles that PSAPs fulfill in their jurisdictions nationwide. Absent National or State level standardization of public safety resources and the process of dispatching, discussing that level of consolidation is folly. I will leave out the elevation of the consequence of a failure at a large center (see Intrado/Wash. State issue) and the obvious politics surrounding "nationalization" of any state or local government function.

Anonymous123456789 (not verified)
on Mar 29, 2015

Idiot being paid too much money to think too much. make 3, it better be federal with 20 and out.. and why would you give the bad guys just 3 critical assets to destroy instead of 5900. dumb.

on Jan 19, 2016

"One thing is clear: No one should expect the number of 911 workers to shrink, no matter how PSAPs are configured. The need for emergency help will not decrease, and the introduction of video and photo capabilities will create a need for more personnel, not less."

I would suggest that this concept is far from clear. In 5900 PSAP's how many personnel are sitting idle (particularly on the overnight shift) in small rural counties or sheriff's offices which have their own dedicated PSAP? This is the kind of consolidation that could easily occur with no loss of service to the calling public nor to the first responders. I agree that the introduction of incoming text, photos, and video may well increase the operator work load, but I think the consolidation should occur first, followed by rationalization of number of staff actually required. One PSAP per state with a 'hot standby' backup will work just fine. Populous metropolitan areas would be the exception of course; these continue to need dedicated facilities.

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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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