Key public-safety groups seek consensus for next-gen 911 direction, federal funding
Representatives from 12 key public-safety organizations met last week in an effort to develop a consensus position about next-generation 911 (NG911) that would encourage Congress to provide federal funds supporting a transition from legacy systems to an IP-based 911 platform capable of supporting multimedia communications.
Conducted last Friday in Washington, D.C., the meeting was co-hosted by the Major County Sheriffs of America (MCSA) and the Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA). During the meeting, the group—the Public Safety Leadership Group—discussed key elements that should be part of the NG 911 infrastructure platform, according to a press release about the meeting that was issued yesterday.
“All of the organizations acknowledged the need to move quickly so that Congress can act to fund this nationwide priority,” the press release states.
Historically, public-safety legislation has a much greater chance of being passed by Congress when the first-responder community is able to reach consensus on its direction. A notable example was the public-safety advocacy efforts that resulted in the establishment of FirstNet in 2012.
Mel Maier, commander of the emergency-communications and operations division of the Oakland County (Mich.) Sheriff’s Office, said he will chair the working group that plans to meet weekly in an effort to reach consensus on critical aspects of potential NG911 legislation. In the coming months, the working group will present its recommendations to the Public Safety Leadership Group for approval.
“I think that this is going to be moving pretty rapidly,” Maier said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. We’re trying to get a lot of information together as quickly as possible and then remain in consensus mode. When we left [last Friday’s meeting], everybody was in lock step … We were all on the same page about the core first principles of this.
“Our goal is to retain the consensus with legislation that is actually meaningful and has the funding available to make it happen.”
In addition to the MCSA and the MCCA, the other 10 organizations participating in the meeting were officials from: International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), National Sheriffs Association (NSA), Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association (MFCA), Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), National Association of State EMS Officials (NASEMSO), Association of Public Safety Communications Officials, International (APCO), National Emergency Number Association (NENA), and the National Association of State 911 Administrators (NASNA).
“Convening stakeholders last week was a necessary step as we collectively look to upgrade our nation’s 911 infrastructure,” MCCA President Art Acevedo said in a prepared statement. “Input from public-safety practitioners every step of the way will ensure NG 911 is effective, efficient and meets the needs of the communities we serve.”
MCSA President Peter J. Koutoujian echoed this sentiment.
“We look forward to working with our public-safety partners to ensure an upgraded 911 infrastructure meets the needs of our agencies and communities and the demands of a modern society,” Koutoujian said in a prepared statement.
Public-safety sources have long identified the need to upgrade the 911 system, which is rooted in technology that was designed to serve emergency callers using voice-centric landline telephony technology, not the modern IP-based broadband services that can deliver voice, text, data, photo and video communications—often wirelessly. With citizens and first responders in the field having access to broadband multimedia, the inability for most 911 centers to support similar technology has been perceived as a limiting factor in some response efforts.
There is broad consensus within the public-safety community that federal funding is needed to implement NG911 in public-safety answering points (PSAPs) throughout the U.S. In fact, a federal cost study estimated that it would take $12 billion to deploy NG911 technology nationwide, although some have noted that the study was conducted before cloud-based 911 technologies began being adopted by PSAPs.
While the $12 billion funding figure has been included in proposed federal legislation, those bills have not gained much traction in Congress. In addition to funding, Maier outlined some core principles that the Public Safety Leadership Group would like to see included in future NG911 legislation:
- Open technology standards to support innovation and competition;
- Funding for transitional training, so 911 personnel can develop the skills sets needed for NG911; and
- Local control, with funding distributed “through public-safety advisory boards or other fair mechanisms,” Maier said.
“The group agreed on a number of principles for legislation to modernize our nation’s 911 infrastructure and the needed funding mechanisms to achieve this goal,” IAFC Past President Chief Jeff Johnson said in a prepared statement.
Sheriff Mike Bouchard, MSCA’s vice president of government affairs, agreed.
“It was important to bring the broader voices of public safety leadership together into the NG 911 discussion,” Bouchard said in a prepared statement. “The dialogue was very productive, and I am pleased we agreed to move forward together on critical issues. There is more work to be done, but we have the right people at the table to complete the task at hand.”
Maier noted that representatives of the Public Safety Leadership Group do not believe that federal legislation should include language mandating the physical consolidation of PSAPs, but they would support measures that would incent PSAPs to voluntarily consolidate—physically or virtually—or share resources.
Maier said that all participants in last week’s Public Safety Leadership Group meeting agreed that cybersecurity should be a priority in any NG911 legislation.
“The number-one thing that brought us together was cybersecurity,” Maier said. “The security aspect of the ESInet design itself—an IP network of networks, connected together—is a paramount concern of folks in the 911 sphere … When people are hooking these systems together, are they updating firmware? Are they updating software? Are they managing with active scanning of the system and monitoring the health of the system for cyberattacks?
“I could go into ransomware and denial-of-service attacks, but the fact is that next-gen 911 technologies are a target for terrorists … They try it now. They send these bursts of signals across these analog trunks, trying to shut stuff down. But with IP, it’s at the speed of light.”
If secure, the NG911 platform promises to provide the 911 system with unprecedented flexibility that should be especially beneficial when an area is hit by a natural or man-made disaster, Maier said.
“It’s also about sharing resources when you need it in a disaster,” Maier said. “These next-gen networks lend themselves to successful redistribution of phone calls and movement of personnel from areas that are affected by natural disasters or other [incidents]. They’re built that way; they cascade that way automatically.
“That’s the thing that keeps that 911 caller on the phone safe, when they don’t even know that they just transferred to another call-taker, never losing connectivity. That’s my goal and that’s our goal as a team getting together on this—to find a way to do that for the public. Because we’re all public-safety professionals, and our goal has always been getting the best help possible to the person as quickly as possible.”
While the Public Safety Leadership Group members found many points of agreement, Beltway sources indicate that nationwide NG911 funding legislation faces several notable challenges, beginning with the fact that 911 historically has been funded at the state and local levels of government—not the federal level.
If Congress is convinced to provide federal funding for NG911, there are questions about how the money should be distributed, particularly in jurisdictions that already have allocated significant state and local money to deploy ESInets and other key components of NG911.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the Public Safety Leadership Group will be reaching a consensus on the technical implementation of NG911. NENA and APCO both released documents earlier this year that were designed to help public safety procure NG911 systems, but the two organizations suggest very different approaches to the task. For instance, numerous references to the NENA i3 standard were featured throughout the NENA procurement document, while the i3 standard was barely mentioned in objectives-based APCO guidelines.