View from the Top

Maximizing the potential of the NPSBN and NG911

Both the next-generation 911 (NG911) and the nationwide public-safety broadband networks (NPSBN) promise to be game-changing public-safety communications networks. They will be even better, if they are integrated properly.

During the 2014 Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) national conference held in New Orleans, Jay English, APCO’s then-director of communications center and 911 services was quoted during a panel discussion as describing the NPSBN and NG911 as “two halves of the same whole.” This is an incredibly cogent and apt observation. But it is not the first time that such an observation has been made.

In a May 2013 webinar hosted by the National 911 Program, Charles Dowd, the former New York City Police Department (NYPD) assistant chief in charge of communications, described an incident that occurred on a city bus involving a rider who was carrying a concealed handgun. Another rider, who happened to be an NYPD dispatcher, saw the handgun and texted another dispatcher’s cellular phone, because she knew that the city’s 911 center was unable to handle text-to-911 calls—a capability that NG911 systems will provide. The second dispatcher then placed the emergency call.

In recalling the incident, Dowd, who was a member of the FirstNet board of directors at the time, said the following:

“In the future, what I would envision in that scenario … is that she would be able to surreptitiously text to 911 and explain directly to a 911 call-taker what’s going on, [and] why she’s texting the information instead of calling.

“Then, not only should the 911 call-taker that’s receiving the information be able to act on it, but—if we integrate correctly with the public-safety broadband network—there should be an ability to pass that information directly to responding units in real time, so that they can actually see those texts and act on [that information] as well, rather than getting it once, twice or even three times removed."

FirstNet seemed to indicate that it understands the pivotal role that 911 plays in emergency response by naming Bill Hinkle—the former director of emergency communications for the Hamilton County (Ohio) Department of Communications and a past president of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA)—as a senior advisor. Nevertheless, the integration that Dowd describes is destined to never occur, precisely because the public-safety sector is falling victim to its traditional-but-archaic way of thinking as it implements the NPSBN and NG911.

For decades, public-safety communications networks and systems have been implemented as standalone entities, with little if any thought given to how those networks and systems will interoperate with other networks and systems, both inside and outside the agency. The same mistake is being made regarding the NPSBN and NG911, which currently are on parallel implementation paths, in large measure because they are viewed as related, but ultimately separate and different networks.

This has to change; specifically, the industry needs to stop thinking and talking about the NPSBN and NG911 as individual entities. Instead, it needs to start talking about a new revolutionary public-safety communications platform with two vital, integrated components, one that serves the needs of first responders in the field (the NPSBN) and the other (NG911) that serves the needs of the first responders in our nation’s 911 centers—i.e., emergency call-takers and dispatchers—as well as the public they serve. New platforms should inspire new thinking, and that’s not happening in public safety right now.

History provides many examples of this phenomenon at work. One of the best comes from the earliest days of the automotive industry. The first concepts for automobiles resembled motorized versions of the legacy transportation options that were available at the time: trains, horse-drawn carriages and bicycles. They all failed, because they were attempts at applying old solutions to a new challenge. Only when Karl Benz took a clean sheet of paper and started from scratch did the modern automobile emerge. Four decades later, Henry Ford used the same approach to solve another problem that the fledgling industry was having—how to produce cars that the masses could afford—by developing the automotive assembly line.

Unfortunately, the public-safety sector is falling into the same trap regarding the NPSBN and NG911 that the earliest automotive companies fell into. Today’s challenge concerns how to enable the public, first responders, 911 telecommunicators, incident commanders, emergency managers, and trauma-center personnel to seamlessly share information about an emergency incident, from a plethora of sources, in real time.

But public safety is applying the old thinking in its attempt to overcome this challenge by implementing two individual networks—the NPSBN and NG911—rather than implementing a unified broadband communications platform that has both the NPSBN and NG911 integrated at its core.

The good news is that it still is early enough in the process for those involved with engineering these networks to come together and shift the paradigm. This will require public-safety leaders to talk with each other—and then with federal lawmakers and policymakers—repeatedly, until they see things the same way. This would be similar to the effort that led to the authorization of FirstNet and the NPSBN.

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