In the first article in this two-part series, we explored the reasons behind Washington State’s decision to upgrade its legacy 911 system and research into paying for the upgrade. In this article, we explain how the plan was put into place.

From the beginning, we knew that an immediate and comprehensive shift to a next-generation network was not feasible. Such a move was too expensive, potentially disruptive, and not technically possible — standards were not yet finalized, technologies were still being developed, and operational impacts were not yet fully understood. We decided to begin replacing network elements that could be modernized in a phased approach that would spread out the capital investment over time and not negatively impact operations in any noticeable way.

The physical network was our first priority. While we waited on tax revenue, we released a request for proposal for the IP network that resulted in our working with CenturyLink and Intrado to deploy a managed emergency services IP network (ESInet). This network was successfully implemented parallel to the legacy system, so the transition would take place in a migratory fashion, instead of happening all at once.

To create assurances for counties that were not as familiar or comfortable with a next-generation network, we chose eight counties for the first migration that represented the full spectrum of circumstances, in terms of size and geographic location. We included counties that faced more significant challenges for converting databases and multiple master street address guides (MSAGs). Over 12 months, we moved those PSAPs one at a time and got them fully operational on the ESInet. This was possible using a gateway device to convert analog 911 calls to digital for transport to the PSAP and another gateway to reconvert the digital voice back to analog for delivery and call processing at the PSAP. We were able to achieve this without any upgrades or replacements to the legacy telephone equipment.

That test group paved the way for the remaining 61 PSAPs. By March 2012, all counties were up and running on the ESInet without any significant impacts on operations. The day-to-day work was taking place exactly as it had been done on the legacy system, but now it was on a more available, flexible and capable network that was ready to implement more advanced capabilities when they became available.

Choosing the Right Architecture

Throughout the process, we have tried to retain the highest level of local control possible. This has become an essential element as we work to choose the best statewide architecture. We have three different platforms in use across the state: Intrado, Cassidian and Zetron. In order to create a comfort level for all the stakeholders, we planned proofs of concept for the Intrado and the Cassidian platforms. We decided to temporarily retain the existing architecture for the Zetron platform, because it was only present in three counties.

In both the Intrado and the Cassidian options, we will establish two geographically diverse and mirrored hubs with PSAP-owned equipment and locations that will service the remaining remote PSAPs in the region. In the Intrado model, the hubs may be housed at a PSAP or a group may choose to house the hubs at a vendor-owned facility, where the vendor will maintain the equipment, as well as monitor network performance and availability.

There is still research to be done to validate the outcomes of these proofs of concept; however, both models seem to be a viable alternative to totally PSAP-hosted solution. This will leave an element of control at the local level while handing over maintenance of equipment to the vendor. We are carefully documenting the short- and long-term cost effectiveness and system efficiencies of each system as they are developed. We hope these will provide valuable insights to other PSAPs as they begin to migrate to an NG-911 network.

Next-Generation is Possible Today

Next-generation 911 is one of the most hotly debated topics in the emergency-services community today. Opinions are varied, emotions are hot, and pressure is mounting. But that cannot stand in the way of this essential work. The realities are clear: the nation’s legacy analog network cannot accommodate the capabilities that have become common features of everyday communications, and work must begin.

The state of Washington took a bold step to move forward into uncharted territory, and we have proven that the move to a next-generation network is possible today for every state and jurisdiction. The implementation of a nationwide next-generation architecture is going to be taking place for decades to come. It is going to require measured steps over time. It may never be complete, as technologies and capabilities continue to develop. It is impossible to envision what the future of emergency communications looks like, but we can get started now to lay the foundation for that future, so that we are ready for it as it unfolds.

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