FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly this week urged members of a new agency task force established to consider the optimal architecture for next-generation 911 to consider “all options on the table,” including significant consolidation of the nation’s public-safety answering points (PSAPs).

O’Rielly’s statement was made Monday during the initial meeting of the Task Force on Optimal Public Safety Answering Point Architecture (TFOPA), which was webcast on the FCC’s website and has been archived. O’Rielly was credited with initiating the task force, although he acknowledged that its scope had broadened beyond what he planned initially.

In his remarks to TFOPA members, O'Rielly said there more than 5,900 PSAPs in the U.S. today with varying capabilities, which “highlight certain problems and potential vulnerabilities that could be less prevalent in a more cohesive, integrated configuration.” With this in mind, O’Rielly said one of his top priorities for the task force is “determining ways to improve the current structure,” O’Rielly said during the meeting.

“I’ve discussed this issue for years with experts in the field and, more recently, with experts at both the commission and outside,” he said. “If we were to build a PSAP system today from scratch—knowing what we know about network architecture and emergency communications—there would likely be considerably fewer PSAPs.

“By some estimate, the current structure would be able to operate at optimal efficiency with as few as three [PSAPs] nationwide. Others argue that there should be no more than one [PSAP] per state. Part of your task is to help determine the number of PSAPs that are necessary to operate an efficient network and do so to the best of your ability, absent political considerations. In other words, this function is to create a baseline upon which to measure PSAP modernization as we convert to [next-generation 911].”

In addition, O’Rielly asked the task force to consider measures that would help prevent the “unacceptable” diversion of fees generated for 911 to other purpose—a practice that is happening in the states of California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Washington, as well as the territory of Puerto Rico.

“We must explore all opportunities to discourage such behaviors,” O’Rielly said. “[911 fees] are not a budget slush fund to be used for purposes labeled as ‘related to public safety.’”

David Simpson, chief of the FCC public-safety and homeland-security bureau, outlined some of the potential functional benefits associated with next-generation 911, as well as the considerable challenges associated with migrating to an all-IP architecture.

One particular challenge facing PSAPs is funding, Simpson said. Not only will upgrading equipment cost money, there will be costs associated with trying to protect the 911 system against cyberattacks, he said. One of the task force’s missions is to identify best practices that can be employed throughout the country to achieve all of these goals at the lowest cost possible.

“It’s pretty clear that you can’t go very far around the subject of architectures—whether it be physical, virtual or operational—without asking the money question,” Simpson said. “We have to be very mindful that  the greatest opportunity to garner significant efficiencies … will come from designing smart from the beginning.”

“[We] look forward to seeing your recommendations for solving some of the most important communications challenges that our country faces today.”

Steve Souder, director of the Fairfax County, Va., department of public-safety communications, is the TFOPA chairman. In his opening remarks, Souder thanked the FCC for the much-needed attention that the agency has paid recently to the emergency-calling sector, noting that “911 is the gateway through which every emergency must pass.”

The task force is divided into three working groups:

  • Working Group 1 will focus on cybersecurity issues and will be chaired by Jay English of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO);
  • Working Group 2 will focus on functional and fiscal efficiencies that can be gained via next-generation 911 consolidation and will be chaired by David Holl of the National Association of State 911 Administrators (NASNA); and
  • Working Group 3 will focus on methods that state, local and tribal jurisdictions can use to maximize resources, including funding. Phil Jones will chair the working group.

Each working group hopes to have recommendations to the task force by the end of September.