Catalyst for change
An entire generation has grown up with the ability to send text messages, pictures and video — as well as access the Internet — from their mobile phones. And, for more than a decade, public safety has been working to catch up with these advancements in communications technology. Legacy systems that exist in most public safety answering points (PSAPs) today have been around since the late 1960s and early 1970s. Though these systems have served the public well for decades, they have not changed with the times. The Durham Emergency Communications Center (DECC) in North Carolina was no exception — at least until last year.
In 2009, the DECC was notified by its database-services vendor that it would no longer provide maintenance or support for the agency’s automatic location information (ALI) database. The ALI database — stored at the DECC since 1999 — was reliable but now was more susceptible to data loss or failure, because of the lack of much-needed maintenance and monitoring. An alternative solution for the ALI database had to be found to prevent the loss of caller-location information at the time of an emergency, which could affect response times and incident outcomes.
We weren’t really sure where to begin, but we knew something had to be done — and it had to be done fast. As part of our research and planning process for a cost-effective database solution, we soon realized that we needed more than just an answer to our ALI problem. We needed operational continuity, database redundancy and optimal security for our emergency call center.
We looked at a few different options, including call-routing services through our local carrier, but the cost of their data circuits and storage was not feasible for our budget. The carrier’s proposal also did not include any future enhancements, such as text messaging or call routing between 911 centers. Instead, we opted to work with Intrado, a 911 service and technology provider, on a comprehensive solution that gives us the enhanced capabilities we need now and provides a foundation for migrating to next-generation 911. The proposed solution offered an advanced 911 call-routing system, off-site ALI database storage, maintenance, and redundancy achieved by establishing separate circuits to our databases in secure sites located in different cities. It interfaced directly with our existing call-handling system and would run over our newly purchased next-gen, emergency services IP network (ESInet).
For us, finding the funds for the project was an easy sell, because it had no impact on tax dollars. The cost of the selected solution was comparable to what we were paying for maintenance and support of our ALI database, so the cost of the new system was incorporated into the Emergency Telephone System Surcharge budget, and the initial, non-recurring charge needed to begin the project was funded through the 911 Surcharge Revenue Fund.
Because the technology was new, we had to explore some things before we could implement the system, including local liabilities related to the confidentiality associated with sending a text message to 911. We also had to address operational concerns caused by moving the ALI database from the DECC to an off-site location operated and owned by a vendor.
To make the migration a reality, we needed to make sure all of our stakeholders were involved. We communicated to them the benefits of a hosted ALI solution, including redundancy, continuity, enhanced security measures, and the ability to share ALI data with smaller PSAPs in other municipalities. We also emphasized the positive impact of text messaging to 911 for the hearing- and speech-impaired, as well as the approximately 100,000 Duke University and University of Central North Carolina students located in Durham.
But one of the most effective steps we took was to develop, document and implement detailed processes and procedures that focused on the concerns of these stakeholders. Most importantly, we kept our eye on the ultimate goal of providing additional contact methods and better 911 capabilities for the community, call-takers, dispatchers and responders.
After receiving approval from all stakeholders, we proceeded with the DECC NextGen Project. The implementation went smoothly. We worked with the vendor to develop a step-by-step migration strategy and followed it precisely. We ran the NG-911 network, including the new hosted ALI database and advanced call-routing capabilities, in parallel with our existing infrastructure, which made the transition transparent to our employees and sworn personnel.
In July 2011, we activated the DECC NextGen 911 Network — the first of its kind in the state of North Carolina — with minimal impact on DECC operations. Call-takers and dispatchers have been able to incorporate this new technology, including text messaging to 911, into their existing workflows. We are now able to route 911 calls to other participating PSAPs in case of an outage or call overflow; respond to text messages; and more efficiently update and effectively maintain our ALI database. The DECC is also better-positioned to incorporate evolving communications technologies and standards.
We learned many lessons along the path to next-gen 911, the most important of which is that you can get started now. I think that there is a perception that moving to NG-911 architecture is going to be very expensive and time consuming. That has not been our experience. And remember, the transition does not have to happen all at once. You can start with one NG-911 enhancement and plan your migration in measurable steps over time, absorbing the costs and allocating funds at a pace that makes sense for your agency.
James Soukup is director of the Durham Emergency Communications Center in Durham, N.C., and can be reached at [email protected].