Urgent Matters

Panel: NG-911 will be a game-changer


A couple of days ago, we hosted a free webinar moderated by Executive Editor Donny Jackson that explored the potential impacts of next-generation 911, an IP-based, broadband-driven technology platform that has been in the works for some time now.

It was an excellent panel that provided some great insights. It included Trey Forgety, the director of government affairs for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA); Chris Norton, the assistant director of telecommunications at Texas A&M University, where much of the R&D work for NG-911 has been conducted; Wanda McCarley, operations group manager for Tarrant County (Texas) 911; and David Jones, vice president with Mission-Critical Partners, a 911-sector consultancy. McCarley also is a past president of the Association of Public safety Communications Officials (APCO), while Jones is a past president of NENA; both are members of Urgent Communications' editorial advisory council.

The webinar was the third installment of a four-part series sponsored by Cassidian Communications that is exploring how broadband will affect first-responder communications. Regarding NG-911, it will revolutionize how public-safety answering points serve the public and the first responders that serve them, according to McCarley.

"There is so much potential, and we've only started to explore that potential," McCarley said, adding that NG-911 will make PSAPs more reliable and cost-effective.

Jones echoed that sentiment, offering that once NG-911 is widespread, it will enable PSAPs to share data not only across boundaries, but also across disciplines.

"Those of us who are in this business seem to focus on the 911 piece, but let's make sure that we recognize that next-gen 911 really impacts all of the emergency-service disciplines — law enforcement, fire, EMS and emergency management," Jones said. "We have a responsibility to look holistically as we are planning for next-gen 911, as we are planning how to procure those services, and as we are planning how to deploy them in our local jurisdictions."

In relation to the ability to share data between PSAPs, the term "virtual PSAP" was tossed around during the event. Jones noted that the term sometimes has a negative connotation, because people believe that it is synonymous with consolidation. However, he stressed that isn't necessarily the case.

"'Virtual PSAP' simply means that we're going to be using the technologies and applications of next-gen 911 and create opportunities for PSAPs to have service without having the physical equipment in their own backroom," Jones said. "That will allow for a significant amount of flexibility … [and] significant cost savings. [But] it still allows for local control. The local PSAP will still have that ability — and should insist on having the ability — to make its own decisions on how it processes 911 calls, how it answers 911 calls and how it responds to 911 calls."

Another key aspect to NG-911 is that the technologies that make it happen are standards-based, which means that the platform won't need to be reengineered every time a new communications medium comes along, according to Forgety.

"Over the past 20 years, even 30 years, we've seen the introduction of wireless service, voice-over-IP service, and every time we've done that, we've sort of gone back and bolted on this additional service to the existing wireline E-911 architecture," Forgety said. "And we've sort of had to do some things to shoehorn it in there.

"That process is very expensive and time-consuming for all the parties involved — the carriers, equipment vendors and 911 centers. It creates a lot of headaches. So, for us, it was important that next-gen 911 be able to use a platform that can cope the next time there's another new service."

As exciting as the panel made NG-911 seem — and it is very exciting — there's still much more work to be done before it is widespread, much less ubiquitous. "Next-gen 911 was never intended as a flash cut," Jones said, estimating that the migration will take anywhere from five to 10 years. And there will be challenges galore. Funding tops the list, but training also is an issue. As McCarley astutely pointed out, the shiniest, coolest tool in the toolbox is useless if the user has no idea what to do with it.

There also is the matter of educating lawmakers on what NG-911 is and isn't. They will have to rewrite exiting laws that stand in the way of its deployment in many jurisdictions. Citizens also will need to be educated on what they will be able to do once NG-911 arrives and what they won't — this is particularly vital, because lives will depend on that knowledge. But, when all of the tumblers click into place, all agreed that NG-911 will be a very cool deal indeed.

That was just the first 20 minutes. There is another hour to this event, during which the panel drilled down on these concepts and explored a great many more. It is archived on our website. I encourage you to listen in — it will be time very well spent. And you can't beat the price.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.

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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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