A changing world
Last month’s National Emergency Number Association conference in Tampa showcased several changes — technological, political and operational — occurring in the 911 arena nationwide.
Many key topics revolved around the best way for the 911 system to adapt to a communications environment that is increasingly mobile and dependent on IP-based technologies. Once considered the exception rather than the rule, wireless and voice-over-IP (VoIP) calls now represent the bulk of traffic entering most public-safety answering points (PSAPs) in the U.S.
In addition, text messaging continues to become more popular, although few PSAPs are equipped to receive them. To address this and other IP-based concerns, NENA is leading standards efforts for next-generation PSAPs that can handle voice, video and data communications in an IP environment.
While NENA officials have expressed the desire to have some next-generation 911 PSAPs operational by the third quarter of 2009, progress is behind that schedule.
Brian Rosen, senior director at Neu-Star and chairman of NENA’s long-term definition working group, said specifications defining the next-gen network should be finalized this summer. However, a transition plan likely won’t be finished until the latter part of 2009, and NENA and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials recently established a joint task force to create specifications for the interface to next-generation computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems, Rosen said.
While these final specifications are more than a year away, Rosen emphasized the need for the PSAP community to move quickly and take steps toward the next-generation 911 architecture whenever possible.
“If it takes another decade, I think we’re doing the country a disservice,” he said.
Such technological challenges are just the beginning. Building next-generation 911 centers will require money, and the laws of some states and local communities date back to a time when wireline telephony was the primary communications avenue. Several speakers at the conference noted that funding models revolving around wireline surcharges need to be changed because shrinking wireline subscriptions mean it will be a struggle to maintain funding for current operations, much less pay for next-generation 911 equipment.
Even if these technical and political issues are resolved, the 911 community must wrestle with managing the potential influx of information in a next-generation environment. During several sessions, call-takers in attendance expressed concerns that receiving voice, video and data information simultaneously might be so distracting that key information could be missed.
But perhaps the most talked-about change during the conference revolved around NENA itself. The week of the conference marked the first full week for new NENA CEO Brian Fontes, most recently AT&T’s vice president for federal relations and a former FCC chief of staff. NENA’s decision to move from its previous executive-director model to a CEO model was a major reason Fontes was attracted to the top staff position in a nonprofit organization.
Outgoing NENA President Jason Barbour said the executive-director model served NENA well for 25 years, but the board believed a governance change was needed to take the organization to the next level.
“If we wanted to carry the association for another 25 years and grow the association, we needed to start running the association very much like a business and have some continuity of operations in place,” Barbour said. “That translates to migrating from an executive director and a president to a chief executive officer.”
Because an executive director typically executes the direction of the board and its president, NENA leadership believed the organization was “susceptible” to scenarios in which one president’s agenda could differ from the next, leaving projects unfinished, Barbour said. By moving to a CEO model, NENA hopes to establish greater continuity in its policy-making.
“[The CEO] will be the face of the association in terms of policy issues, so people know who they can go to and that it doesn’t change from year to year,” Barbour said.