The current state of 911: Good, bad and ugly
Speaking last month in a webinar hosted by the National 911 Program—a unit of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Emergency Medical Services—FirstNet board member Charles Dowd said it is essential that the nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN) is designed so it can integrate with next-generation 911 (NG-911) systems.
“You can’t get the job done without 911,” Dowd said. “As we move from enhanced 911 to next-generation 911, it’s going to be an interesting confluence of technologies as we try to push that information out in a meaningful way to first responders.”
An assistant chief with the New York Police Department, Dowd told of an incident on a city bus. An off-duty 911 dispatcher on her way to work noticed a man fumbling with a bag of some sort; as the man did so, a handgun became visible to the dispatcher. The off-duty dispatcher knew that she couldn’t call 911, because that might spook the suspect. Because the dispatcher also couldn’t text 911, she did the next best thing—she texted another 911 dispatcher, who made the emergency call. The incident had a happy ending, as officials located the bus and dispatched police officers, who arrested the man before he could do any damage.
In the future, such incidents will be handled differently, Dowd predicted.
“That’s the way we do it under today’s technology,” he said. “In the future, what I would envision in that scenario … is that she would be able to surreptitiously text to 911 and explain directly to a 911 call-taker what’s going on, [and] why she’s texting the information instead of calling.
“Then, not only should the 911 call-taker that’s receiving the information be able to act on it, but—if we integrate correctly with the public-safety broadband network—there should be an ability to pass that information directly to responding units in real time, so that they can actually see those texts and act on [that information] as well, rather than getting it once, twice or even three times removed.”
Dowd’s comments are particularly meaningful, because they indicate that the 911 sector has come a long way in terms of how it is perceived.
“Over the years, 911 has become a profession, rather than a duty relegated to police, fire or sheriff’s personnel … and people are recognizing that 911 is a vital link from the consumer right through to first responders, for any emergency,” said Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association.
“The Call,” a recent movie in which the actress Halle Berry plays a 911 telecommunicator working to save an abducted teenage girl, not only brought much-needed positive publicity to the sector, but perhaps also opened a few eyes, Fontes said.
“We very much appreciate Halle Berry underscoring and bringing attention to the profession of 911,” Fontes said. “Every single time she has spoken, she has raised the point that she never knew how 911 worked until she did training [for this role]. She said that these people are the unsung heroes.”
Another positive for the sector concerns next-generation 911 technology. While standards work never really ends, the initial phase of NENA’s i3 standard that provides key technical guidelines for NG-911 deployments was completed two years ago this month, and systems are beginning to be deployed.
While concerns persist over how public-safety answering points (PSAPs) will handle the perceived tsunami of data that will flow their way as a result of NG-911, there’s an enormous amount of interest in the technology, according to Terry Hall, president of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials and chief of emergency communications for York County (Va.) Regional Emergency Communications Center.
A webinar that APCO presented, inspired by York County’s NG-911 deployment, provided anecdotal evidence that supports Hall’s contention.
“We had a thousand people sign up—that was a record webinar [for APCO],” Hall said.
While most agencies still are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward NG-911, adoption of the much-anticipated technology will accelerate soon, driven by public demand, Hall said.
“I think it’s going to take off in the next year more than it has in the last 2-3 years combined,” he said. “The public demand is there for IP. … The fact is that the younger generations would rather do things with their PDAs and handheld devices than to talk to you face to face or over the phone—you see people texting people who are on the other side of the room. It’s the world we live in now.”
Laurie Flaherty, coordinator of the National 911 Program, agreed. NG-911 represents “a lot to take in,” but PSAP personnel are “incredibly resilient and all about being adaptable,” traits that will serve them well during and after the migration, she said.
“We’re playing to their strong hand on this one—they’ll figure it out,” Flaherty said. “I agree that NG-911 does scare them a little bit, but they felt the same way about [enhanced] 911.”
Flaherty added that she believes the 911 sector is committed to the idea of NG-911.
“They’re determined to find a way to make it happen,” Flaherty said. “What’s happening in southern Illinois is a perfect example of that.”
Numerous counties in the region—a vast rural area marked by low population density and a depressed economy—have been working for 7 years to pool their resources in order to create the Counties of Southern Illinois Next-Generation 911 Pilot Project. (See figure, next page.)
It hasn’t been easy, according to Kenneth Smith, 911 coordinator for Williamson County. None of the counties previously worked together, which complicated the task of determining how to divide the costs of the network. In addition, funding had to be secured for the project. The U.S. Department of Justice provided an initial $600,000 grant, but $400,000 in matching funds had to be raised—a task that hit a snag when three counties backed out of the consortium.
“They didn’t want to spend the $30,000 each,” Smith said, noting that about $800,000 of the $6 million budget has been spent to date.
Despite these obstacles, Smith instinctively knew that a regional approach was their only hope.
“The alternative would have been to do nothing,” Smith said. “We needed to band together to get grants. If we didn’t, we would have been among the last to get next-generation 911.”
In addition to the financial hurdles, there were regulatory delays—the Illinois Commerce Commission still hasn’t signed off on the plan. Other hurdles included the absence of a statewide 911 system and Emergency Services IP Network (ESInet), the latter of which provides the underlying functionality that lets voice, text, data and video be delivered to NG-911 PSAPs.
“Nothing was in place, and there were lots of obstacles,” Smith said.
But Smith and his cohorts were undeterred. They hired a system integrator—NG-911 Inc., of Williamsburg, Iowa—that “understood regulatory battles and was willing to help us fight them,” Smith said.
“A key to our success was partnering with people who knew more than we did,” Smith added.
Another important decision was to partner with the Illinois Institute of Technology—which had seen the project as a way to fulfill its desire to establish a NG-911 test bed—to solve the challenge of interconnecting with the small local exchange carriers that serve the region.
“We spent just $65,000 in grant money, and received probably 10 times that much value from their geniuses,” Smith said.
Legal complications forced ITT’s role to be curtailed, but key participants Barbara Kemp and Dave Staub formed Assure911—a Groton, Conn.-based provider of NG-911 network management solutions—so that they could continue working on the project.
Meanwhile, in a true case of serendipity, Southern Illinois University provided hundreds of students who worked to compile accurate, NENA-compliant GIS map data.
“This time, one of our members was working on his masters in GIS, so he worked out an arrangement with SIU-Carbondale to use geography department students to perform hundreds of hours of work on our data,” Smith said. “We spent only $80,000 for what would have easily cost us 3 times that to have it done commercially.”
For all of their shrewdness, perhaps the most important decision made by Smith and his cohorts was to stay committed to the project, said Roger Hixson, NENA’s technical services director, who worked on this project at various junctures.
“I want to compliment them on their will power,” Hixson said. “They really held in for a long time trying to accomplish what they want to accomplish, and doing it in a way that I think is probably the way of the future.”
David Jones, a consultant with Mission Critical Partners, agreed.
“You have to be willing to work outside of your own little sandbox, you have to be willing to collaborate,” said Jones, a former NENA president and director of emergency services for Spartanburg County, S.C. “This idea that everybody can go it alone, you just don’t hear that as much as we used to. A lot of that is driven by the fact that we can’t sustain the current model.”