Today's 911 network is solely dedicated to enabling citizens to request emergency assistance by connecting a caller to a call-taker. The current system performs this single mission quite well, day in and day out.

However, a next-generation emergency response infrastructure can more effectively support 911's broader mission — both call taking and subsequent dispatch operations — and be leveraged to more directly support a wide range of additional critical public-safety communications needs, including mobile emergency voice and data communications. As public-safety agencies develop migration plans to upgrade their legacy 911 infrastructure, it is imperative to make sure the radio-based needs of mobile responders are accommodated as well.

In the current operating environment, the 911 network is on standby most of the time, prepared to provide access to emergency assistance on demand. A flexible next-generation operating environment can allow the emergency response community to use this excess capacity to support legacy voice radio communications needs, without adversely impacting 911's life-saving mission. It also can support transporting and sharing of radio-based data communications, with the right information automatically provided at the right time, directly to the right responder.

Further, such a system can improve collaboration among a wider set of emergency responders by minimizing the limitations resulting from the current operating environment's heavy reliance on premises-based systems. As a result, the capabilities of all users, regardless of their technical sophistication, can be elevated.

The opportunity is to deploy a next-gen platform that lets current operations to continue non-stop throughout the network but also offers new capabilities, regardless of the geographic location of the technology or the level of technical sophistication available to a specific jurisdiction.

Hurricane Katrina provides a real-world example of why such a technology migration is necessary and how a fully optimized next-generation emergency response network can help improve interoperability and operational flexibility.

From a technology perspective, one of the most interesting stories to come out of Katrina was the ability of public-safety and technology officials for the city of New Orleans to piece together an IP communications network in a hotel room. The ready availability of such a network to all public-safety agencies in the area could have dramatically improved the ability of emergency responders to do their jobs.

This could have been the case regardless of a specific agency's level of technical sophistication or the functional limitations of premises-based infrastructure. The only caveat is that the system must be designed, deployed and maintained to the same performance levels as required for the current 911 network.

In such a network, feature functionality is delivered via a secure IP connection, not a technically isolated, proprietary message-delivery system. Theoretically, if a public-safety communications center became inoperable — as was the case for several agencies in the aftermath of Katrina — personnel could have quickly re-established operations anywhere using secure data links.

Emergency dispatch and response operations could have seamlessly continued without pause. By implementing a system that allows common equipment to be geographically redundant and separated from the users, public-safety officials have a higher degree of operational flexibility than provided in the current premises-based approach.

In addition, a network-based services-delivery platform enables the most advanced feature functionality to be available to all responders based on their authorized level of network access. With costs shared among multiple jurisdictions, and the network itself managed on behalf of public safety by a next-gen 911 service provider, economies of scale can be realized. Using network-based intelligence, all participating agencies benefit from cutting-edge technology without having to undertake expensive upgrades one at a time, jurisdiction by jurisdiction, while laboring to ensure continued compatibility.

During Katrina, a next-generation network also could have been leveraged to support more effective collaboration between a broader set of users, such as FEMA and National Guard personnel. This is possible because network system access is based on standard interfaces and authorization layers, not specific premises-based or in-vehicle equipment. With functionality provided through the network, getting the right information to the right responder at the right time — as contextually appropriate — is a matter of gaining authorized connectivity to a managed, secure and reliable IP-based system.

A specific example of where a next-generation system could have improved emergency response during Hurricane Katrina is in the challenges federal and emergency personnel from other jurisdictions faced trying to locate a specific address. Even had rescue personnel been familiar with the area, it was difficult to find addresses because many street signs were knocked down or underwater. Armed with more contextually relevant information — specifically text-based driving instructions or latitude/longitude coordinates, delivered through the optimized emergency response network — mobile responders may have been able to get to many places faster.

However, we must consider what it takes to deploy a robust and integrated set of IP-based applications as the technical foundation from which next-generation emergency mobile communications can operate. The entire public-safety community — and the public that it serves — expects that emergency communications will be operational 24 hours a day, every day.

Clearly, a robust IP-based next-generation 911 network must address this expectation. An effective next-generation 911 system that relies on IP must maintain the public-safety standards of security, reliability, performance and availability required of any life-safety system.

Local public-safety agencies interested in ensuring that their mobile emergency communication needs are integrated into a next-generation operating environment without adversely affecting the delivery of emergency services would be well-served to follow the current operating model.

Like the current 911 system, the next-generation system must be deployed over a dedicated, secure and highly reliable IP infrastructure. This system must be managed by an experienced and trusted 911 service provider, such as the incumbent local exchange carrier (ILEC), on behalf of multiple local governments. Strict rules and standards will need to define which personnel and organizations are granted network access.

Should a migration to IP not be part of a particular ILEC's overall strategy, there are other companies with the required expertise to help a community cost-effectively make the migration to IP-based 911, leveraged to also support the needs of emergency responders that rely upon mobile technology.

Next-gen 911 has the ability to elevate the capabilities of all communications centers and improve collaboration among mobile responders, in addition to supporting expanded 911 functionality. But it must be designed and maintained to the same high performance standards as the current 911 network. Local public-safety communication center officials and state 911 coordinators can serve as good resources in determining the best alternative for your jurisdiction.


Stephen Meer is co-founder and chief technology officer of Intrado, a leading provider of 911 solutions. For more than 25 years, he has been helping government agencies develop solutions that address emerging technologies. He can be reached at smeer@intrado.com.

MRT TV

Editor Glenn Bischoff talks to Chris Drake, operations manager for the City of New Orleans Emergency Operations Center, at HSNI 2006 about restoring vital communications services in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
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