Most attention on the FCC today will be focused on the commission’s approval of an order that has come out of the controversial “net neutrality” debate. While such attention to such a high-profile issue is understandable, it clearly overshadowed another significant action — the launch of a proceeding that will examine the implications of next-generation 911 systems.

Indeed, in the press conference after the FCC meeting, no reporter asked a single question about the NG-911 notice of inquiry. Some commissioners were almost apologetic in their comments that the item would be relegated to being an afterthought in the minds of most in attendance, but all acknowledged the importance of the upcoming 911 proceeding.

“Our current 911 system provides an incredibly valuable service … but today’s 911 system doesn’t support the communications tools of tomorrow,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said during the FCC meeting, which was webcast. “It’s time to bring 911 into the digital age.”

This is especially important because many citizens believe the 911 system is far more advanced than it actually is. Today, sending a text, photo or video is commonplace occurrence, but the fact remains that virtually none of the public-safety answering points (PSAPs) are equipped to handle such communications.

“You can’t text 911,” Genachowski said. “If you find yourself in an emergency situation today and you want to send a text for help, you can pretty much text anyone except a 911 call center.”

NG-911 promises to resolve this issue by migrating PSAPs to all-IP architectures that can receive all forms of modern communication transmissions. For people in a hostage situation, such systems would allow them to text for help without making a sound. In other cases, a photo/video transmission could help law enforcement quickly apprehend a perpetrator that might escape the area while victims and witnesses are interviewed.

While the need for NG-911 in PSAPs is clear, how that migration from today’s circuit-switched environment to an all-IP architecture is much more difficult to determine. Like other governmental entities, many PSAPs are struggling to find the resources needed to maintain existing services, much less embark on the development of a next-gen platform.

The good news is that NG-911 could introduce efficiencies that could help save costs. The bad news is that there promise to be many extra costs associated with next-gen 911. Training will need to be a priority, and it could be challenging.

For instance, how can 911 personnel differentiate a legitimate evidentiary image from a Photoshop hoax? How do you train someone to receive text messages, which are written in an ever-evolving language that often does not resemble English? And what happens if the person texting is using some form of text shorthand in a language other than English?

In addition, there are personnel issues that affect 911 operations. Should the same person receiving an emergency voice call also process text, photos and video, or should there be specialists for each medium? Legitimate arguments can be made for either setup. Regardless how it is done, most believe additional 911 personnel will be needed to handle the new forms of media received.

And that brings us to a long-time concern of the 911 sector — money, whether it is used to pay for next-gen equipment or additional personnel. Current state-oriented funding plans have created a patchwork of uneven 911 service levels throughout the country, with some PSAPs prepared for Phase II mobile wireless calls as other areas are still waiting for basic 911 services.

Funding is not something the FCC can address, but the NG-911 proceeding should help identify the technical and operational requirements, so lawmakers on Capitol Hill have some idea how much financial aid is needed — and where additional funds are needed the most. Hopefully, the NG-911 proceeding will generate enough informed responses to shed light on these important issues that will be critical to public safety in the future.

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