Currently, the nation’s enhanced-911 system works quite well. Every day, emergency calls are made from coast to coast and, for the most part, they are answered and processed at the appropriate public-safety answering point (PSAP) in a reasonable amount of time, and the necessary response is dispatched with relatively few hiccups.
The system has worked this way for more than 40 years. But the world has changed dramatically since the late 1960s, as public demand for emergency services has grown dramatically and advanced communications technologies have evolved. However, aside from a few upgrades, the 911 infrastructure is basically the same today as it was in 1968. While text messaging and advanced data sharing have become commonplace elements in modern, day-to-day, digital communications systems, these valuable capabilities still are unavailable in the aging analog emergency services architecture.
In other words, the 911 system as a whole is vastly behind the private sector in adopting advanced communications technologies. Moreover, the current system is reaching the end of its lifespan. Consequently, the emergency services community needs to roll up its sleeves and work together to make next-generation 911 (NG-911) a reality — as quickly and as smoothly as possible.
The ongoing conversation about how to migrate today’s analog 911 emergency call system to a next-generation digital architecture is complicated. The National Emergency Number Association has been working for years to develop standards — dubbed NENA i3 — that would guide the development of the proposed next-generation architecture. But the overwhelming majority of this work is focused on the technical requirements and there are numerous other factors to consider as the new framework is designed and deployed. Indeed, it is critical that PSAP managers focus on the operational impacts that a migration to NG-911 architecture would create.
Next-generation technology is going to bring about significant operational changes as 911 centers shift from sequentially processing single-source linear data to simultaneously processing multiple sources of disparate data. Right now, PSAPs rapidly serial-task because that is how an analog system works. As next-generation applications, services and infrastructure are deployed, PSAPs will have to make sense of voice, video, text, and digital data that are converging on them simultaneously. From a 911 call-taker’s point of view, PSAP managers need to think about how such information is going to be received and processed, and what type of interfaces will be used for this task. Managers need to train call-takers to learn how to interpret and manage text, pictures, video and other forms of data. Suddenly, they may be able to actually see the event to which they are responding. As a result, call-takers will need to learn how to be virtually on the street, yet remain objective.
From a management point of view, how all of this may affect call-processing time must be considered. The introduction of these new data options almost certainly will affect the amount of time necessary to evaluate, sort, and package that information in a way that makes sense to call-takers and is useful to first responders. In turn, any change to call-processing time will influence staffing needs. Right now, PSAP staffing often is determined using a formula that has call-processing time as a contributing factor. If the addition of various forms of new data impacts that time, managers will need to develop strategies that enable the PSAP to continue meeting operational standards within its budgetary limitations.
Beyond training, call processing and personnel issues, managers also must address a looming policy-and-procedure quagmire. Suddenly, PSAPs are the last stop for an immense amount of data. Consequently, managers need to determine how and where to store that data, how long to keep it, and who should have access to it. The list goes on. These are incredibly important issues, and there are many layers to be uncovered. As of today, we simply do not have a clear view, or a full understanding, of how an i3-based, NG-911 architecture is going to change the way PSAPs are operated.
As stated earlier, there are many organizations working through the obstacles that all PSAPs eventually will face as a result of the NG-911 migration. But, exactly who has the final word on how this is going to play out is yet another issue that remains unclear. As members of the emergency services community, all PSAPs not only must play a role in the process but also must pay attention to the work being done. Indeed, 911 centers must participate in the process on their own behalf, or they risk leaving themselves vulnerable to — and inadequately informed about — what lies ahead. In other words, you can participate in change and shape it to work for you, or you can have change happen to you and react to it.
In Minnesota, a statewide PSAP working group has been formed to discuss the broader technical and operational issues that accompany the NG-911 migration. One of the primary topics that is being explored is the implementation of common operating processes. Currently, when a PSAP experiences a flood of calls, the system has no way of managing the surge in activity. Calls simply sit on the system waiting to be answered. With NG-911, PSAPs will have the capability to route overflow calls to another center. By planning now for common interfaces and procedures, we are clearing the way for better operations and more lives saved.
NG-911 will impact every PSAP to varying degrees. As a result, managers cannot simply sit back and wait for the big, beautiful next-generation box to arrive with a bow. This is not something that will be “plug-and-play.” The next-generation migration will require a massive effort that all must take up. Every manager must initiate their own education, voice their comments and concerns relative to the proposed i3 technical requirement (as well as other NG-911 standards that are in development) and begin to identify their individual needs — technically, operationally, procedurally and financially.
The NENA i3 document and other important aspects of NG- 911 are not fully defined. But it is clear that this is not going to be our parents’ 911. It is going to be a vastly different model that has never been seen, and PSAP managers need to be open to — and ready for — a whole new way of doing business. One admirable trait of emergency response personnel is that they are highly creative and adaptable. The successful migration through wireless 911 and all of its technical and operational impacts speaks to that adaptability. Next-generation 911 will take time and effort, but if the PSAP sector works together, it will be up to the challenge.
Heather M. Hunt is the director of emergency communications for the city of Minneapolis.
- Read the main story, “A long time coming,” to learn what NG-911 and i3 mean for PSAPs.