Once considered warily — if at all — by directors of public-safety answering points, IP-based systems may be gaining traction quickly in a marketplace that traditionally has been dominated by telephony-centric solutions.

Although public-safety officials, lawmakers and regulators continue to struggle with the delivery of various forms of voice-over-IP (VoIP) calls from the public to PSAPs, call center administrators are discovering that VoIP and other IP technologies are extremely cost-effective for internal purposes.

“That is an area where I would feel comfortable telling any PSAP that they could save 30% to 40%,” said James Cavanagh, a 911 consultant for The Consultant Registry. “And the longer you wait, the more money you waste.”

Cavanagh emphasized that he would not recommend PSAPs establish an IP connection with the public “under any circumstance” today because of additional costs and uncertainty regarding security, standards and regulatory requirements. However, he fully endorsed internal IP connections for links between PSAPs or between a PSAP and another government-owned facility, such as a police department or courthouse.

In these scenarios, both ends of the IP connection can be controlled by the government entity, which is in a position to ensure that its throughput and security needs are met. When this occurs, there is no question that IP solutions are better alternatives to the traditional telephony model for a PSAP's internal operations, Cavanagh said, noting that fellow 911 consultant Lee Moore realized an average 38% savings each month after transitioning PSAPs in Elmore County, Ala., to an IP platform.

These savings come from a number of factors, Moore said. From a capital-expenditure perspective, off-the-shelf commercial networking equipment used in an IP environment is 25% to 45% less expensive than the comparable telephony gear. In addition, an IP-based PSAP no longer is beholden to the local telco for its connectivity, which also can reduce costs.

“You have options in your connectivity that you didn't have in the past,” Moore said. “And that typically gives you pricing power. Choices are good.”

Certainly, these upfront savings are nice, but investing in an IP-based PSAP continues to pay dividends after it is installed, Moore said. The platform enables features such as automated alerts when any IP device on the network exhibits symptoms of possible failure and the ability to maintain the network remotely.

“[With a telephony-based 911 system], most of the time when you had an event or an issue, it was a truck roll for the telco,” Moore said. “Now, we can touch every IP device on the network — we can restart servers, we can load new software, we can do whatever we want to — through our VPN, as long as we have a high-speed connection.

“We have found that between 75% to 80% of all problems that we have had can be resolved remotely without a truck roll. That is a huge advantage.”

There also are operational benefits associated with an IP platform, said Steve Panyko, CML Emergency Systems CEO. CML's Patriot solution — the only package on the market certified by IP-networking giant Cisco Systems — integrates call handling and dispatch functions and can even serve as the PBX for administrative lines in a PSAP, Panyko said.

Patriot's value proposition is great enough that the CML IP package has been deployed by Cortez County, Colo. — a smaller PSAP — and more recently selected as the statewide solution for PSAPs in Montana. Connie Johnson, communications supervisor for the Cortez Communications Center, said she was impressed that the transition to IP could be made so quickly and was relatively transparent to dispatcher operations.

“Truthfully, what it looks like to the dispatcher is not all that different,” Johnson said. “The immediate thing is to be Phase II wireless compliant, and that has nothing to do with the IP part of it.”

But more important, the IP nature of the platform adds an element of flexibility that can be especially helpful when a significant event occurs that otherwise might leave a PSAP short on resources, Panyko said.

“Today, when there is a large incident and additional dispatchers are needed, PSAPs rely on cell phones and pagers to reach them, but by the time they get [to the PSAP], the incident is usually over,” Panyko said. “With IP, you can contact the dispatchers at home, and they can immediately start taking calls and dispatching from home or wherever there is a high-speed Internet connection.”

Consultant Cavanagh warned that PSAP administrators should use extreme caution before making this scenario a reality, noting that unsecured access for a remote dispatcher could undermine the security of PSAP information.

The ability to add resources quickly also is valuable, whether the personnel are located within the PSAP or in a regional center hundreds of miles away, Moore said.

“It is much easier to dynamically add capacity in an IP environment,” he said. “With an IP-based system, adding a [position] or two only takes plugging in a work station and a phone.”

Given the total value proposition, Moore believes the PSAP transition to IP-based solutions will occur quickly. Vendors such as Tel Control Inc. — with which Moore worked in developing the Elmore County system — and CML have “bet the farm” on IP solutions, and other industry stalwarts are planning moves into the IP arena, he said.

“Within the next two quarters, there will probably be a dozen to two dozen systems using voice-over-IP, softswitching technology installed and running out there,” Moore said. “In two years or less, I predict there will not be a major manufacturer of CPE equipment that's continuing to sell anything but a softswitch-based, voice-over-IP system.”

Although CML trumpeted the unveiling of its IP-based Patriot solution during the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) conference in August, other vendors currently are taking a low-key approach in terms of publicizing their transition to IP because of reservations some customers have about newer technology, Moore said.

Indeed, changing a long-held mindset within the PSAP community is not an easy task — something Morgan Wright, Cisco's global industry solution manager for justice and public safety, noted while publicizing his company's partnership with CML on the Patriot platform during the APCO conference.

“It's like telling people the world isn't flat,” Wright said.

Wright said Cisco is very interested in the 911 sector but does not have its own call-management solution for PSAPs. Some pioneers in the IP-based PSAP arena have used Cisco's popular enterprise-centric CallManager product, but the IP networking company recently sent letters asking them to stop doing so.

The letter was a big disappointment to many recipients, but Wright said Cisco currently is endorsing the CML solution, which survived an extensive testing regimen to gain Cisco certification to interoperate with CallManager.

“We just want to make sure that, when you're dealing with Cisco, you're dealing with experts in the handling of emergency calls, and Cisco is not a 911 expert,” Wright said. “We understand that this is life and death … that's what 911 is for. When we're in that space, we greatly respect the expertise of people like CML. It's a partner-led approach, and CML is the partner right now.”

Cisco's deal with CML is not an exclusive arrangement, and other 911 vendors are in the process of gaining certification with Cisco, Wright said.

“It's not an exclusive arrangement, but they were first, and there is an advantage to being first,” Wright said.

With Cisco asking PSAPs not to use CallManager except in conjunction with CML's Patriot product, Moore said PSAP directors wanting an IP platform are looking at other options, including one from Avaya.

Regardless of how vendors' public-relations teams play it, the PSAP migration to IP is inevitable where the PSAP entity can control the connection, Moore said.

Cavanagh believes it may be difficult to persuade PSAP directors to abandon their trusted telephony-based solutions but said the functionality and pricing advantages of IP-based PSAP solutions are too compelling to ignore.

“It's cheaper and better. How often do you have a chance to do that?” Cavanagh said. “I understand their caution, I understand their worries … but the PSAP-to-PSAP [IP connection] is not rocket science.”

[ BENEFITS OF INTERNAL IP USE FOR PSAPS ]

CONNECTIVITY:

PSAPs can get connectivity from providers other than local telco.

EQUIPMENT COSTS:

IP components are readily available, and prices continue to drop.

INTEGRATION:

Platform allows easier integration with other PSAPs or government facilities.

FLEXIBILITY:

Remote dispatching can be established quickly from alternative locations.

DEPLOYMENT:

IP systems typically can be deployed more quickly than telephony-based solutions.

FUTURE CONSIDERATIONS:

IP architectures can handle alternative media such as video. System can be upgraded via software downloads instead of forklifts. There will be more IP technicians than telephony technicians in the future.

Sources: James Cavanagh, Lee Moore