CHARLOTTE--Dramatic changes in technology and communications habits mean that emergency-calling networks must move to a next-generation architecture quickly to meet public expectations for 911, speakers told attendees at the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) conference here yesterday.

Today’s 911 system was designed 40 years ago to work with emergency calls coming from the traditional wireline telephony network, said David Jones, former NENA president and co-chair of NENA’s Next Generation 911 Transition Planning Committee. While attempts to retrofit the network to work with wireless calls and telematics have been difficult, at best, the emergence of voice over IP (VoIP) cannot be adapted to the existing network effectively and efficiently, he said.

“VoIP has taught us that there’s no way we can put this square peg into that round hole any longer,” Jones said. “We cannot do it. We cannot adapt the current 911 system anymore; it simply cannot be done.”

And public-safety entities should embrace the change, Jones said.

“We’re going to talk about what NG 911 is … but here’s what NG 911 isn’t: It’s not scary; it’s not going to put us out of work; it’s not going to use the Internet, per se; and—this is the big one—it’s going to keep us from trying to put the square peg in the round hole,” Jones said. “And it’s not going to go away.”

Indeed, 60% of calls today come from wireless devices, and that figure is expected to increase to 70% within five years, said Brian Rosen, senior director at NeuStar. During that time, at least 40% of all wireline calls are expected to be routed through VoIP providers, meaning that less than 20% of all calls will come from the traditional telephony network around which the current 911 system is based, he said.

“We have to design the system around the wireless guys and the VoIP guys, not around the [traditional telephony] wireline guys,” Rosen said.

But next-generation 911 is not simply needed in another decade; it’s needed now. Rosen said his personal survey of teenagers indicate that 40% believe they can text message—a favorite form of communications—the 911 system now, although almost no public-safety answering points (PSAP) in North America are equipped to handle such communications.

“They think [text messaging to 911] works now,” Rosen said. “So, we have two possibilities: We can run some massive educational campaign that says that it doesn’t work, or we can make it work. I think we’ll probably take the latter.”

Certainly the migration to a next-generation 911 system offers many challenges, not the least of which are developing sustainable funding models and helping PSAPs learn to work in an environment in which the access provider and the calling provider are not necessarily the same entity—a scenario that is common in the VoIP arena.

While VoIP has sparked the need for next-generation 911, it is not the only technology driving the change. Myriad consumer devices that could deliver valuable information to emergency responders via data, text and video applications are becoming more prevalent and should be able to access the 911 system, Rosen said.

“There are lots of little devices that are coming along—I have two, while some of you have three. Any of these devices could reasonably be used to call 911,” Rosen said. “When I’m in a panic, I may not remember which ones do and don’t work. I pick it up, I enter ‘911,’ and I think it ought to work. And, the thing is, if you think it ought to work, then it ought to work.”