For the past three years, the National Emergency Number Association's Next Generation Partner Program has been working to pave the way for next-generation 911 technologies, or NG 911. Specifically, these are IP-based systems that can accept multiple inputs — such as text messaging and video — in addition to voice, and which can offer transparent interoperability between local, regional and national emergency communications networks.

The effort involves more than 40 public-safety and industry organizations that have been meeting on an ongoing basis, hammering out ideas and proposed policy recommendations. The roster includes governing authorities such as the North Carolina 911 Board and the Greater Harris County (Texas) 911 Emergency Network, manufacturers and service providers such as Motorola and AT&T, and industry associations such as NENA and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials.

To ensure that all this work results in the timely deployment of NG 911 technology when it finally becomes available, the partners are carefully analyzing existing federal and state laws that regulate 911 services.

“Along with all the technical and operational progress that is being made with next-gen 911, it is imperative that we pursue a parallel effort when it comes to policy,” said Patrick Halley, governmental affairs director for NENA. “We need to ensure that the goal of our nation's policy-makers is to advance to IP-based, next-gen 911 systems when they become available. Otherwise, all of this effort will have been for nothing.”

James D. Goerke, CEO of the Texas 911 Alliance, agreed. “What may prove to be most challenging are the policy, legislative and regulatory challenges that will impact our ability to fully realize the benefit of NG 911,” he said.

On that note, it is imperative that the 911 community be at the forefront of the regulatory planning process that will govern these systems in the future, said Richard Taylor, executive director of the North Carolina 911 Board. “We need to make sure that our lawmakers understand this technology fully, and have the right guidance to craft laws that will regulate it effectively,” he said.

The fundamental problem with today's regulations is that they were written when traditional wireline-based 911 systems run solely by established telephone carriers were the norm. “Under the current rules, some of the technologies being envisioned for next-gen 911 services might not even be allowed,” Halley said.

For instance, some state laws stipulate that 911 services have to be provisioned by local exchange carriers — and no one else. Meanwhile, even the FCC's rules arguably require that all wireless and voice-over-IP (VoIP) 911 calls travel through selective routers residing in the current wireline E911 network, Halley said.

Ensuring that the relevant laws and policies be revised or replaced requires a tremendous amount of research. “We are looking for common issues across the states — high-level limitations that can be easily identified — so that we can draw up proposed revisions that can be passed onto state regulators on a nationwide basis,” Halley said.

The ability of NG 911 systems to interconnect across state lines also will require new laws and policies that will govern not only how calls are routed to 911 centers, but also who receives them. For instance, NG 911 systems will be capable of handling not just voice but also text messages (to aid the hearing-impaired) and video clips as well. These are communications options not imagined when current 911 laws and policies were drawn up.

Then there is the issue of caller sorting. In current 911 systems, callers are steered to call centers based on their locations and, in some cases, whether their calls require a response from police, fire or EMS. In the next-gen 911 world, systems will be able to automatically route callers to appropriate call-takers based on language, physical disabilities such as deafness or blindness, and any other conditions deemed relevant. For instance, calls from an industrial zone might be routed to a hazardous materials-oriented dispatch center as a matter of course. Again, the rules governing which calls go where and under what circumstances, as well as who makes the decisions, all have to be sorted out by policy-makers first.

“These [current] laws were built to reflect today's E911 capabilities,” Halley said. “They need to be changed to keep up with what's happening now and in the near future.”

Competition is yet another issue with which legislators will have to grapple regarding NG 911 systems. The issue is not the creation of competing 911 services, but rather the decentralization of 911 call-handling and -routing among various carriers in the marketplace, as opposed to the centralized local-exchange-carrier model currently in use. Today's laws are not designed to reflect nor deal with such a change.

Finally, there is the issue of funding. In a world where NG 911 systems are the norm, where will the money be found to pay for these services, and how will the load be shared among the communications marketplace?

“A large part of the funding issue stems from the fact that traditional 911 funding mechanisms are based on traditional and historical system features that may not apply in the evolving world of telecommunications,” Goerke said.

How all of these policy issues are resolved will influence the technical standards applying to NG 911 system manufacturers, which is why Motorola would like to see them tackled now rather than later. “We want to build our next-gen 911 systems to meet such standards, rather than having to go back and retrofit them after the fact,” said Tim Boyle, vice president of public safety applications for Motorola. “This will save everyone time and money, which is in the public interest.”

It's a big job, said Taylor, a past NENA president. “All of these issues are interwoven,” Taylor said. “To make next-gen 911 work, you have to deal with legislative barriers, jurisdictional limitations, technical issues, funding adequacy and operational concerns. It is a big project, which is why we are working with the NENA next-generation group to deal with it proactively.”

As a result of its ongoing meetings, the group is making headway, Halley said. In addition to thrashing out policy issues, identifying antiquated legislation and contemplating how funding mechanisms must be adapted to bring them in line with emerging technology, the effort has included the drafting of model legislation that governments can use to guide their own efforts.

“By creating draft legislation, we hope to steer lawmakers toward the issues that need to be dealt with to implement next-gen 911 technologies fully,” Halley said. “We also intend to provide such information to state governors, Congress and the FCC, to get everyone on the same page policy-wise.”

By doing so, NENA and its NG Group partners hope to smooth the way for next-gen 911 system deployments, and all the benefits they will bring to public-safety agencies and society as a whole.