Although the events of Sept. 11, 2001, may have created a public realization that the nation's emergency communications systems are outdated and outmoded, NENA began to recognize the limits of the current E911 systems in 1999. Today, after the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons highlighted an even greater emphasis on disaster management and recovery, we believe that, without question, forward-looking and more flexible and recoverable technology must be applied in emergency communications.

Our emergency call-takers and responders are being tasked with one of the most important jobs in our society, yet are doing so with technology that most businesses have moved far beyond. We are sending emergency responders into dangerous situations without information that could help them and without the necessary tools to stay in contact with their fellow responders. We are asking commanders to operate without the most modern information technology tools, with the result being a lack of access to a plethora of vital information resources.

An obvious weakness of existing emergency communications systems throughout the U.S. is that agencies generally do not have the ability to share information. However, with the right systems and tools, we could have faster, more informed and more efficient emergency responses.

The Network Reliability & Interoperability Council (NRIC) Focus Group 1D states that the effective future emergency communications system needs to be an internetwork: a set of policies, tools, interfaces and standards that securely connect numerous local, regional, and national wireline and wireless networks. This “system of systems” would enable modern and integrated information capabilities to support local, regional and national emergency needs.

Similarly, NENA's Future Path Plan proposed that a hierarchy of interconnected local, regional and national IP networks would accommodate not only the next generation of E911 systems, but also many other emergency communications applications on such a functional internetwork.

A driving force behind this concept of a “system of systems” is one that pertains to homeland security. The only realistic way for organizations responding to homeland security threats and events to share information is to have an effective day-to-day emergency communications system, which can then be used in national emergencies.

As with many other networks, NRIC Focus Group 1B foresees convergence of data, voice, text and video networks, using standard IPs. Further, this focus group believes that public-safety authorities should and will deploy IP networks within the public-safety answering point (PSAP), between the PSAP and the sources of calls coming into the emergency system, and between the PSAP and first responders and other emergency service agencies.

This communications infrastructure serving PSAPs will comprise an internetwork of managed and secured emergency service IP networks. Such an emergency service network should in turn be interconnected to neighboring jurisdictions for mutual aid assistance. Such well coordinated interconnection should grow to the state, regional and national levels as well. Local policy will govern such interconnectivity and should consider security vulnerabilities in the connections between networks.

These emergency service networks will evolve beyond simply providing interfaces to PSAPs. These networks will bridge PSAPs, other emergency service providers, jurisdictional oversight and management functions. Such capability will include the ability for state, regional and national interests to monitor, impact and participate in emergency preparedness or emergency events. The advantages of such an internetwork are enormous. The system architecture and technology have largely been developed. Leadership at all levels of government is critical to make this vision a reality.

David Jones is NENA president and director of emergency services for Spartanburg County, S.C.