Fixing the nation’s 911 system will require commitment, not rhetoric
This week, during the National Emergency Number Association’s conference in Minneapolis, much of the chatter was about NENA’s i3 standards, which provide the technical guidelines for the development of next-generation 911 technologies.
That was expected, since NENA only approved i3 last week, after an arduous seven-year journey. Unexpected was the healthy dose of realism that I encountered during the conference. The consensus attitude among the assembled seemed to be that finally locking down i3 is more analogous to the first leg of a marathon than it is to the final steps across the finish line.
Indeed, several educational sessions that I attended were focused on what comes next — and there is plenty. First, the standard will evolve further, as standards always do. “It’s a work in progress,” said Steve O’Conor, who just completed his term as NENA’s president.
More than that, i3 and NG-911 are not synonyms, cautioned Tony Busam, senior public-safety consultant for Salem, Ore.–based RCC Consultants. Busam said that i3 is merely the first step toward the real end game, which is next-generation 911 technology. And, when products built to the i3 standards eventually come to market, that’s when the real work will begin.
Governance will be a big hurdle standing in the way of NG-911 deployments. One of the most appealing aspects of NG-911 technology is that it enables data to be shared with other 911 centers, as well as with other public-safety and government agencies. However, rules will have to be established to govern how data is shared, under what circumstances and by whom.
Policy is another giant speed bump. “You probably have state laws that are governing your 911 system, and you probably have tariffs in place,” said Pete Eggimann, director of 911 services for the Metropolitan Emergency Services Board, which oversees the regional 911 system that serves the Twin Cities and surrounding communities. “I can just about guarantee you that all of those laws and all of those tariffs are going to be specific to the telephone company.”
Consequently, the ability to generate funding for a NG-911 will require approval of new legislation, which is never an easy task.
Speaking of funding, that will be the biggest hurdle of all — more mountain than speed bump. Isn’t it always? There never seems to be enough money for public-safety communications, but this is particularly so in the 911 sector, which traditionally has been treated as the red-headed stepchild.
But that might be changing. During the NENA conference, a recorded message from FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski was played, in which he stated that “the current 911 system is antiquated and that has to change.” Jamie Barnett, chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, who spoke in person, chimed in, saying that “fixing 911 is a top priority for the commission.”
That’s nice to hear. But I wonder how they’re going to pull it off. Specifically, where is the money going to be found to do the job? Right now, Congress, the FCC and the public-safety sector collectively are contemplating the buildout of a nationwide wireless broadband network that will cost tens of billions of dollars to deploy. It’s difficult to believe that there will be much — if any — money left over for NG-911.
That’s troubling, because for public safety to fully realize the potential of next-generation communications technology, NG-911 has to develop in lockstep with the nationwide wireless broadband network. If one believes that first responders in the field need — and deserve — next-generation communications technology, doesn’t it make sense that 911 telecommunicators have the same, as first response begins in the public-safety answering point?
Washington is only going to get one shot at doing this right. Consequently, any effort to bring first-responder communications into the future needs to include the 911 sector. Talk is cheap. Show us the money.
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