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Where should a public-safety answering point (PSAP) begin to address cybersecurity?

As public-safety answering points (PSAPs) transition to all-IP architectures as part of the migration to next-generation 911, cybersecurity is a natural concern. Luckily, next-gen 911 standards established by the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) provide valuable guidance on this critical topic.


By Erik Wallace

As more people move toward cutting the cord, the call to action for public-safety answering points (PSAPs) being ready to handle the continued influx of mobile communications to 911 is getting louder. While PSAPs still work great with landline calls and do a fine job serving those people who most often need help—the elderly—they are not ready to handle those who are migrating to mobile devices.

In particular, the more than 40% of U.S. households that only have wireless phones (according to National Center for Health Statistics) are at a distinct disadvantage, as most PSAPs have been designed to respond to an infrastructure built upon 1960s and 1970s technology, which is not equipped to handle texts, pictures, video or to provide accurate location information from a mobile (or voice over IP, better known as VoIP) phone. 

Luckily, the new next-generation 911 (NG9-1-1) standards established by the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) provide guidance to handle this mobile migration.

The first step is to switch to an IP-based PSAP network. The new, NG9-1-1 system can handle the most common, “modern” ways of communicating: mobile (and VoIP) phone calls and SMS text traffic (pictures and video are coming quickly). The ability for a 911 user to send a geo-stamped picture of the situation from the accident scene has many benefits, not the least of which is the PSAP’s ability to forward that image to first responders, when possible.

Of course, the biggest drawback to an IP-based system is the network’s inherent vulnerability to attacks and data breaches. In fact, at next week’s NENA 2015 conference, cybersecurity is a hot issue.

Recent cybersecurity attacks are cause for concern, especially when it comes to a system that is designed to help people in life-or-death situations. As such, the ability of some guy to launch a denial-of-service attack on a PSAP from his mom’s basement is a thought that will keep 911 directors up at night, if the right mechanisms are not in place.

But where do you start? How do you ensure that your PSAP can withstand cybersecurity attacks? The answers to these questions lie in the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Cybersecurity Framework, which has been designed specifically to help managers of critical infrastructure, such as PSAPs, by developing a risk-management-based approach to cybersecurity. This means that IT managers have a logical, yet holistic, system for answering the most common cybersecurity questions:

  • What are the cybersecurity threats to my systems, assets, data, and capabilities?
  • What safeguards should I implement to ensure delivery of 24/7, mission-critical emergency services?
  • Can I identify the occurrence of a cybersecurity threat?
  • How do I deal with a cybersecurity event after it is detected?
  • How do I restore services and foster continued network resiliency after a cybersecurity incident?

The NIST Framework has four “Core Elements” that address each of the questions above. The core elements (listed in order of size from largest to smallest) are: Functions, Categories, Subcategories, and Informative References.

The beauty of the NIST framework is its ability to work with an IT system of any size. And, it’s technology neutral. Further, the NIST framework is suitable for IT networks at any maturity level. So, there’s no more guesswork; the heavy lifting already has been done for you.

Specifically, the five main Functions of the NIST Framework Core are:

  • Identify
  • Protect
  • Detect
  • Respond
  • Recover

Each of the five functions addresses one of those common cybersecurity questions. More importantly, IT managers now have a systematic, risk-analysis-based system that shows where to focus time and resources in cybersecurity for the best and fastest results.

Here’s where it gets a bit tricky, though. Each of the five functions is broken down into categories and subcategories. Eventually, you’re going to come face-to-face with a wide range of references, each of which has guidance that can be used to improve your PSAP’s IT processes and procedures. But note that the NIST framework is more of a guideline than a rule.

If your PSAP already has a process in place to deal with a specific element of cybersecurity (and, that process is working well), great! You should share those best practices with your PSAP’s IT supply chain and other stakeholders.

If not, then the “Informative References” Core Elements will spare you from having to comb ISACA’s Cobit 5, ISO 27001, or the NIST 800 series for the answer to any specific question. Additionally, working with a partner that is buttoned up on cybersecurity issues, knows where vulnerabilities are, and how to address them is a key way to ensure the safety of your PSAP, while guarding your systems operations from interruption and intrusion.

When choosing a partner to safeguard your systems against attack, find one that offers a comprehensive plan for detection, prevention, mitigation, and response to cyber events. With the right tools in place, cybersecurity can be limited to just a threat and not become a reality.

As Director, Commercial Cyber Services for the Cyber Intelligence Group at TeleCommunication Systems, Inc. (TCS), Erik Wallace is responsible for the Services sector of TCS’ Art of Exploitation® (AoE™) Portfolio, which is an integrated suite of cybersecurity services and training solutions that safeguard critical business assets against cyber threats.He is also the Managing Principal of the TCS Software Security Team, which guides TCS internal software development teams in best practices for secure software development and is a key leader in the sales, engineering, and development of many TCS applications.

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