KANSAS CITY—A panel discussing the future of the 911 system and emergency communications spoke of wondrous new capabilities, some of which first responders “haven’t even dreamed of yet.” But they also told of numerous hurdles that need to be cleared before these capabilities come to fruition or can realize their full potential.

Laurie Flaherty, co-manager of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s NG 911 Project working to develop an architecture and migration plan for an IP-based, digital 911 network, predicted that the project, once completed, would “answer some questions but probably raise more.”

“There are decisions that police, fire and EMS will have to make,” Flaherty said. “Now that we’ve enabled this IP system, what do you want? What kind of data is going to make a difference in terms of helping you do your jobs better? More is not necessarily better.”

For instance, next-generation 911 systems will be able to capture all sorts of data from automobile crashes generated by in-vehicle monitoring systems. But policy decisions have to be made to ensure that the information helps first responders make better decisions not overwhelms them.

“If we can figure out which 6 to 8 data elements have the best predictive value in terms of serious injuries, those are the ones we should transmit,” Flaherty said. “We don’t need all of the information, we just need to know ‘bad crash.’ It will become incumbent upon police, fire and EMS to determine what information is going to be most useful to them.”

Other challenges loom. For instance, wireless callers will be able to text 911 messages in the future. Many see this as a plus, particularly in circumstances where the caller doesn’t want to be heard making the call. This occurred during the Virginia Tech shooting rampage last year, when students attempted to text 911 messages because they didn’t want to be heard by the gunman, not realizing that public-safety answering points (PSAPs) are unable to receive them today. In Tinley Park, Ill., police now theorize that the gunman who murdered five people in a clothing store did so after becoming enraged after hearing one of the victims attempt to call 911.

But some fear the ability to text 911 will unleash a torrent of calls that could overwhelm PSAPs. Others are worried that the capability will lead to an increase in 911 calls that aren’t true emergencies—“the proverbial ‘cat in a tree’ calls,” said Mike Amarosa, senior vice president for True Position, a provider of wireless location services.

Educational programs exist—and more are coming—to inform the populace on how to properly use the 911 system. “It’s not a panacea in terms of solving all of the issues, but it will go a long way in terms of … what the 911 system needs to be effective. In many cases, it will be that you don’t call.”

Speaking of location, another problem that will need to be addressed is that no such capability currently exists to locate text callers. Flaherty said the intent is to correct this shortcoming.

The biggest challenge that stands in the way of 911’s brighter future is funding. Even today, wireless subscribers have the capability to transmit pictures and video from incidents, but PSAPs have no way of receiving the information--and no way, in many cases, of upgrading to technologies that would allow them to do so.

“Money is a key factor. The technology already is there and, in a lot of respects, the things we’ve described can be done today. We’re talking about a nationwide infrastructure that’s going to have to be involved, so it’s not going to be cheap,” said Tim Lorello, senior vice president for TeleCommunications Systems, a provider of mission-critical wireless data solutions. “You have to do it in steps, and one of the key steps is upgrading the PSAPs, giving them the opportunity to have the funds that allow them to take advantage of some of these new infrastructures.”

Greg Rohde, executive director of the E911 Institute, believes recently enacted legislation that would let federal grant money be used to deploy next-generation systems will help in this regard. Previously, such funds could only be used to upgrade PSAPs to meet the FCC’s Phase 1 or Phase 2 wireless location requirements. Many believe that restriction retarded appropriations from the Enhanced 911 Act of 2004, which authorized up to $1.25 billion over a five-year period for such upgrades, because the nation’s most populated areas already have made the transition to Phase 2.

“In 2004 … the decision was made to limit the scope of the grant program to Phase 1 and Phase 2 wireless, identifying that as a key priority,” Rhode said. “Given where technology has changed so fast that we’re now talking next-generation 911, it doesn’t make any sense to have a program that’s limited to that type of approach. It’s become much broader, looking at a greater range of technologies.”