It started like any other 911 call. A person with a mobile phone dialed the emergency number to report that a nearby house was on fire. After confirming the location, the 911 call taker at the PSAP, or public-safety answering point, sought more information about the blaze.

After the call taker asked how much of the structure was engulfed in flames, the caller said, “Well, look for yourself.”

At that point, the call taker heard silence — no hang-up click, no verbiage from the caller, nothing. When the caller finally spoke again, the dispatcher asked once more, “How much of the house is engulfed in flames?” The caller replied, “What, couldn't you see?”

Eventually, the confusion was cleared. It turned out that the extended silence the dispatcher heard occurred as the caller pointed a camera phone at the fire so that the dispatcher could view the extent of the blaze.

Of course, the dispatcher saw nothing because today's 5400 primary PSAPs in the U.S. were designed to handle only voice calls. PSAPs currently do not attempt to support other common forms of communications — e-mail, instant messaging, still images and video, to name a few — although they have become commonplace in the information age.

“The caller probably thought, ‘Of course the PSAP can see that. If my mom and sister can see it on their cell phones, surely a PSAP can,’” said James Cavanagh, global telecom network and security consultant for The Consultant Registry.

Making 911 always available

But they can't because the 911 network was designed decades ago, at a time when voice — specifically, voice from a wireline telephone — was the prevalent form of real-time, distance communication. At the time, there was no indication that wireless phones would become almost ubiquitous, and the public Internet had not been conceptualized.

Consequently, attempts to retrofit the wireline telephony-centric 911 network to accommodate calls from wireless and voice-over-IP (VoIP) customers have been significant struggles technically, financially and politically (see story on page 6). The idea of retrofitting the 911 system yet again to handle other forms of media such as text, images and video is not realistic, said Ashish Patel, senior product manager for 911 solutions vendor Intrado. The time has come for a new architecture for the emergency-communications network, he said.

“We're at a point where [the 911 system] has been maxed out; there are technical limitations,” Patel said. “We need to accommodate those kinds of rapidly changing technologies without having to go back and retrofit every time one hits the market. We need solutions that are easily changeable and adaptive to new things.”

Indeed, the communications landscape continues to shift at a dizzying pace, and public-safety officials are eager to leverage the information new applications can bring. Sending a text message may be the only option for a hearing-impaired person or someone who doesn't want to speak for fear that a predator might hear them. And, as the truism indicates, a picture can be worth a thousand words — not just as an aid to an officer responding to an incident but also as key evidence that can be used in the justice system.

“If we can pass one quick image, and it saves a life, it's well worth it,” said Jim Argiropoulos, director of information services for the city of Chicago's office of emergency management.

Bill McMurray, president of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) echoed this sentiment.

“Our notion has always been that, if people are using a device to communicate, they ought to be able to access the 911 network,” McMurray said.

The promise of IP

Although there are many debates regarding the migration path, virtually everyone in the industry agrees that the technology foundation of the next-generation PSAP will be IP-based. Not only is IP being used increasingly as a bridge that allows the integration of disparate communications systems, the protocol's worldwide usage creates economies of scale that make gear relatively cheap.

While calls into PSAPs still arrive via the legacy telephone network, many PSAPs already are making the transition to IP internally. In an IP world, integration and interoperability between departments and between jurisdictions becomes significantly easier.

In Chicago, mapping software not only shows dispatchers the site of an incident and the nearest first responder, but data from the city's traffic-management department also will be integrated this summer, so the quickest route to the scene can be identified, Argiropoulos said. Eventually, Chicago also hopes to integrate video from the city's extensive surveillance camera network into the system, he said.

“Our intent is that … we want to bring the closest camera [to the caller] to the dispatcher, so he can see what's happening at the scene,” Argiropoulos said.

High-speed data networks at PSAPs could allow call takers and dispatchers to leverage important information that is available at the click of button — or faster, if the information is sent automatically. Valuable hazardous-materials information could be accessed quickly and transmitted directly to a first responder if a high-speed wireless network is available. Eventually, medical records could be made available to emergency medical technicians, valuable information that can help save lives.

“We want PSAPs to be able to accept voice, video and data calls,” said Rick Jones, NENA's operations issues director. “And, we want them to have the ability to transfer all of that between PSAPs and to first responders.”

Technical hurdles

Technically, the next-generation vision certainly is within reach — IP-based solutions have been created, high-speed networks are being deployed, and the costs of the technology continue to drop in accordance with Moore's Law.

But some technical hurdles remain. For instance, most officials would like PSAPs to be able to receive instant messages from the public, but the matter is complicated by the fact that several proprietary protocols are used today, Cavanagh said. Should PSAPs commit to supporting them all, support none of them until an industry standard is created or pick one to support, which could impact market forces in the arena?

Of course, these debates pale in comparison to the larger issue of what a next-generation PSAP should look like and what's the most appropriate migration path to an IP-based world. Several organizations are studying the matter, including NENA, the Network Reliability and Interoperability Council (NRIC) and the Emergency Services Interconnection Forum (ESIF).

Currently, the 911 system typically runs through the incumbent local exchange carrier (ILEC), which typically maintains — and often owns — the selective routers that direct calls to the appropriate PSAP, as well as the automatic location identification (ALI) database that provides the location of wireline telephony 911 callers.

Brian Rosen, president of Emergicom and co-editor of NRIC's latest 911 reports, said the selective-router system does not meet the needs of the modern PSAP, especially in an era of nomadic VoIP customers.

“One of the biggest problems is that selective routers are pretty limited in what they can do,” Rosen said. “Selective routers can't route across the country, and we need that now.”

In addition, the ALI database system should be removed from the 911 network, according to Rosen, who also chairs the NENA working group establishing a next-gen standard known as I3. Instead, the access network — whether it be cable, wireline, wireless (voice or data) or satellite — should determine the 911 caller's location (via GPS or a network-based technology such as triangulation) and send the information to the PSAP with the call, negating the need for an ALI-type database.

One of the most encouraging aspects of this location model is that PSAPs can leverage technology that network providers — particularly those serving mobile customers — want to fully develop for commercial uses, Rosen said.

“Let's face it, if you have location information that can tell me how to direct a 911 call to the right PSAP, you can use that same technology to direct the caller to the nearest Pizza Hut,” Rosen said. “So, there's value in that for the access network provider.”

Critics of ESIF's Task Force 34 findings claim its proposed solution — which would replace the ALI database with another enhanced database — would introduce proprietary solutions into the 911 system at a time when an open-standards architecture is needed. But supporters of the ESIF recommendations note that the groups driving the proposal — including vendors that serve ILECs — have a greater understanding of the current network and the need for a smooth migration from the legacy system to an IP-based network.

“Having access to information is not the end game,” said Scott Fincher, Intrado's senior marketing communications manager for safety and security solutions. “Having access to it in a secure manner is the end game.”

Indeed, everyone agrees that security may be the biggest technical challenge as PSAPs transition to an IP-centric world.

“Security is an issue — a serious issue,” Rosen said. “I don't want to say [a security breach] can't happen, but we have tools and capabilities that are quite adequate to thwart attacks. … The key thing is we need to actually use the tools we have.”

But repeated stories about hackers breaking through firewalls into IP networks are enough to cause concern among some public-safety officials, who “don't want a national information highway that would deliver terrorists to their door,” said The Consultant Registry's Cavanagh. Furthermore, with communications forever evolving at an ever-accelerating rate, there's no guarantee that IP-based technologies would provide a “future-proof” standard for PSAPs.

For these reasons, PSAPs may want to proceed with caution in making the move to an IP world, said Wanda McCarley, second vice president for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO).

“I'm not one who believes public safety should run to the bleeding edge of technology,” McCarley said. “I think technology needs to be credible and reliable before we deploy it in situations where people's lives are at stake.”

Operational, political realities

In additional to the technical issues, the prospect of next-gen 911 also raises operational issues for public safety. For instance, if callers can provide data from multiple sources of media and more databases can be accessed, some fear that PSAP personnel could become overwhelmed by all the information in some scenarios.

Others disagree, saying that the emotional stress always will be a bigger problem in a PSAP than raw workload issues. However, virtually everyone agrees that PSAP personnel will need even more training, which already has increased significantly in recent years.

“When I started 20 years ago, I had one-and-a-half days of training before I took my first call,” McMurray said. “Today, we train people for 18 months.”

And that training time is especially difficult for PSAPs with just a couple of call-taker positions. The smaller PSAPs are equally troubled when trying to secure funds for upgrades. In fact, some PSAPs have not been upgraded to support wireline E911, much less wireless calls with location information. Given that, many question whether funding can be found to upgrade the more than 5400 primary PSAPs in the U.S.

The circumstances have sparked debate centered on the notion of consolidating PSAPs. Such a strategy allows technology, funding and personnel to be concentrated, which enhances interoperability efforts and the buying power of the PSAP, said Bruce Cheney, director of emergency services for the state of New Hampshire.

“If each one had to buy its own system in different locations, we wouldn't be able to upgrade as often,” Cheney said. “But, because it's all in one room, a lot of the costs go away, and we have a bigger pool of money to use.”

Chicago's Argiropoulos echoed this sentiment, but there certainly is no consensus on the subject nationwide. While states such as New Hampshire and Rhode Island have only one PSAP, others have hundreds — a strategy that proponents say allows their personnel to better understand and serve 911 callers that live in the nearby area.

It's a touchy subject, one that potentially could impact a number of technical and political issues. But consolidation proponents claim the need for local knowledge of a community continues to diminish as various databases become more robust.

“The thought has been, ‘The closer you have the PSAP to the caller's hometown, the more the call taker knows and understands the community,’” NENA's McMurray said. “There's a point where there's a diminishing return on that … but I don't know where the balance is.”

Money time

Even if all these issues could be resolved, many question where cash-strapped PSAPs would get the funds to move to a next-gen architecture. After all, most states are not close to finishing Phase 2 wireless upgrades (see map on page 59), so upgrading to an IP-based solution may not seem realistic. In fact, many states have made a habit of raiding funds created to support PSAPs when budgets become tight.

However, industry officials are expressing hope that next-gen upgrades won't be too far away.

“This is much less expensive than the Phase 2 upgrade,” Emergicom's Rosen said. “The big money in Phase 2 was in the GIS database, and you're not going to have to recreate that for I3.”

In December 2004, Congress passed a bill that called for $1.25 billion in funds to support PSAP upgrades during the next five years. The money has yet to be appropriated, and the initial target was Phase 2 wireless upgrades, but many believe the federal dollars could be used for IP-based upgrades that also provide Phase 2 functionality.

Rosen said the key to this scenario is for the industry to agree on a next-gen standard, something he believes could happen by the end of the year.

“If this happens, then you have to ask yourself, ‘Is it worth it to make a Phase 2 upgrade now, when I'm going to want to upgrade to an IP-based system in a couple of years?’” Rosen asked. “[PSAPs] might decide to go straight to I3, instead of messing with Phase 1 and Phase 2.”

Meanwhile, McMurray also is concerned about operational funding for PSAPs. Most states rely on fees from legacy wireline users to fund call centers (see graphic), but those numbers are expected to shrink as more people replace their traditional telephone service with wireless and VoIP alternatives. Finding a sustainable funding model is critical, he said.

“The financial part of this is almost as important as the technology,” McMurray said. “Because, without the money, we can't do much.”

Further complicating the issue is that the Congressional action also created a national 911 coordination office. While some industry observers believe the entity primarily will coordinate efforts and oversee technical trials, Cavanagh said he wouldn't be surprised if the office becomes a controlling body, especially as state funding mechanisms wither.

“As one guy told me, it's the golden rule — he who has the gold makes the rules,” Cavanagh said.

BREAKDOWN BY STATE

Alabama 58%
Alaska 4%
Arizona 0%
Arkansas 62%
California 71%
Colorado 37%
Connecticut 100%
District of Columbia 100%
Delaware 100%
Florida 73%
Georgia 27%
Hawaii 0%
Idaho 12%
Illinois 45%
Indiana 91%
Iowa 57%
Kansas 11%
Kentucky 39%
Louisiana 27%
Maine 100%
Maryland 92%
Massachusetts 100%
Michigan 88%
Minnesota 98%
Mississippi 12%
Missouri 34%
Montana 6%
Nebraska 3%
Nevada 17%
New Hampshire 100%
New Jersey 100%
New Mexico 0%
New York 34%
North Carolina 77%
North Dakota 82%
Ohio 15%
Oklahoma 1%
Oregon 100%
Pennsylvania 18%
Rhode Island 20%
South Carolina 48%
South Dakota 8%
Tennessee 100%
Texas 46%
Utah 14%
Vermont 100%
Virginia 88%
Washington 85%
West Virginia 53%
Wisconsin 3%
Wyoming 4%

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