It would not surprise anyone in the emergency-communications industry to say that there is an ever-growing gap between modern communications and the nation’s aging 911 network. Today’s communications are almost entirely digital. Almost every phone call made in the United States — wireline, wireless or VoIP — utilizes digital networks, unless the call is made to 911. Those essential calls travel over an analog network that was established over 40 years ago, with only minor upgrades in the interim.

To date, the system has served us all well enough. Every day, emergency calls are made from one coast to the next. For the most part, they are answered and processed by the appropriate PSAP in a reasonable amount of time, and the appropriate help is dispatched. However, the aging analog system cannot keep up with the advancements taking place in modern communications. The bottom line is that the legacy system must be upgraded to the much-discussed, IP-based, next-generation 911 (NG-911) architecture, and the work must begin as soon as possible in order to keep pace with the way people communicate today.

For many in the public-safety community, the move to NG architecture is a future consideration. For the state of Washington, the implementation is underway, and the outcomes to date are encouraging.

The state of the state of Washington

Washington is a large and geographically diverse state with 69 PSAPs in 39 counties — rural and metropolitan, seaside and inland, mountainous and flatland. We are home to almost 7 million people. In 2008, the Washington State NG-911 Advisory Committee had to face the hard truth that we were not adequately meeting the needs of our constituents, particularly the 450,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHOH) citizens who call our state home. These people are migrating more and more away from telecommunications devices for the deaf (TDD) and embracing text messaging to communicate. However, the legacy 911 system would not allow them to text an emergency message to 911. Texting and picture- and video-sharing are common means of communicating for most people, but the vast majority of public-safety answering points are not ready to accommodate these modern capabilities.

Something needed to be done, and it was clear we couldn’t wait for universally agreed-upon, next-generation standards. In response to these challenges, the advisory committee established the NG-911 Committee to start exploring our next-generation possibilities. We accepted the fact that we would be blazing our own trails and that we likely would learn valuable lessons along the way that would be helpful to others who followed in our footsteps. Despite all the obstacles, we took the first steps toward modernizing our emergency communications network, so we would be ready for NG-911 as soon as it was ready for us.

Starting with Conviction

When this journey began, the only thing we knew for sure was that we didn’t know very much. We learned quickly that we must educate ourselves and not let the unknown deter us. Once we got comfortable with that, we began to focus on discovery.

One of the best decisions we made at that time was to include our vendor groups in the planning process. Because they had worked on the migration from analog to digital outside of emergency communications, their insights and expertise were indispensible. As members of our NG-911 committee, they became key contributors in casting our vision, implementing our strategy, and solving day-to-day problems.

The next wise decision we made was to conduct objective, outside research relative to the projected cost of this initiative. We needed to create proofs of concept to demonstrate to state legislators that our strategy was sound and the funding mechanisms could be implemented. That work validated that our 911 tax was funding only about 38% of the total cost of the legacy 911 communications system. The remaining funding was coming from non-911 local budgets. Based on the study findings, including the total estimated transition costs, we proposed increasing the state 911 tax by $0.05 per subscriber per month and increasing the local tax by $0.20 per subscriber per month. Additionally, we proposed adding VoIP customers to our revenue base — a segment of the calling population that had not been taxed in the past.

Next: Washington State develops, implements its plan.

Jim Quackenbush is the executive director of Thurston 911 Communications (TCOMM) and chair of the Washington State NG-911 Committee.