Urgent Matters

It's time for PSAPs to prepare for move to next-generation 911

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Based on the recent proclamations from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, PSAP coordinators may want to develop plans for migrating to next-generation 911, even if it is unclear today whether there will be funding to pay for the technological upgrades.

There may be considerable debate within the 911 community whether it’s a good idea or practical, but the transition to a next-generation 911 platform seems destined to occur in the nation’s public-safety answering points (PSAPs)—and it will happen sooner rather than later, if current FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has anything to say about it.

Wheeler bluntly stated during the commission’s January meeting—where rules that wireless carriers and other text providers should support text-to-911 functionality were proposed—that PSAPs need to “get with it,” referring to support of emergency text messaging. This statement drew considerable criticism among many in the 911 community who accused the FCC chairman of not understanding PSAP operational and funding dilemmas.

Last week, the FCC tackled another sticky 911 topic: location information for emergency calls coming from a wireless device being used inside a building. Many observers wondered whether Wheeler would use the opportunity to pacify his critics by softening his stance on the need for PSAPs to upgrade their technology and equipment.

Instead, Wheeler reiterated his position, although he did express a greater understanding of the challenges involved in making the vision of PSAP technological upgrades a reality.

“I’m going to challenge [PSAPs] again, because it takes two to tango here; you’ve got to be able to receive the information,” he said. “I understand that there are budget cuts you have to live under, and I understand the incredible situation [regarding] the tightness of funds, but this agency will [help] you deliver to those that you have to go to the message … about how important it is that the ability to summon help keeps pace with technology.”

Why the sense of urgency? It seems that Wheeler wants to avoid a repeat of the scenario that occurred with the FCC mandate that wireless carriers support E-911 Phase II capability—initially enabling outdoor location of a wireless 911 caller within 300 meters—effective Dec. 31, 2005. The FCC passed the requirement and fined several carriers for not meeting the deadline.

Today—more than eight years after the effective date of the E-911 Phase 2 mandate and more than a decade after the FCC passed the order—the ability to locate wireless callers dialing 911 is still a problem, but not because carriers don’t support the functionality. The problem is that 20 states have at least one county that is incapable of accepting E-911 Phase 2 location information, with 10 states having at least 10% of their counties falling short of Phase 2 standard, according to information from the National Emergency Number Association (NENA).

Discuss this Blog Entry 1

GBH (not verified)
on Mar 18, 2014

I have to applaud Counties and PSAP managers who watch their budget and implement technology as they can afford it; rather than just write the PO and worry about how to pay for it later.

There's a name for an outfit who takes the latter approach: its called "Federal Government"!

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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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