Homeland Security and Public Safety

911 Systems Upgrade to Accept Text Messages and Video

IP-based networks help call centers move beyond voice communications.

When Vermont's emergency response community switched to a new Internet protocol (IP)-based 911 telecommunications system in two data centers in February 2007, it put the state on the leading edge of the nationwide transition to next-generation 911 (NG 911) call centers.


Across the country, regional and state officials are working on standards and funding mechanisms to shift from legacy systems to IP-based networks - gaining the flexibility to handle emergencies and bringing the country's 6,500 call centers into the 21st century.


In essence, 911 centers are working to catch up with the profusion of consumer devices that send and receive text, data and digital images.


In a few years, most call centers should be able to exchange and disseminate text messages to the public alerting them of emergencies, as well as stream videos of bank robberies and transfer those images to police squad cars. And when a tanker truck flips over on the highway, a passerby will be able to take a photo with his or her cell phone and send a picture to 911 of the truck's hazardous material symbols.



Model of Excellence
Many states have several regional 911 networks that can't communicate with one another and are tied to specialized 911 routing equipment and software used by landline telephone service providers. In addition, disparate emergency service agencies that are typically part of a metropolitan area are likely to have different types of software systems, making transferring callers and their information difficult.


That's not the case in Vermont.


"All incoming calls go to one of the two data centers and are converted to voice over IP [VoIP]," explained Jim Lipinski, IT manager of the Vermont Enhanced 911 Board in Montpelier.


From there, the calls are routed to one of nine call centers (also known as public safety answering points, or PSAPs) around the state. If one PSAP is busy with calls or knocked out of service by a storm, calls can instantly be routed to a second tier of nearby PSAPs.


"We can add flexibility while shrinking our whole system," Lipinski said. "We were able to decommission a PSAP that was taking less than 1 percent of calls statewide. The transition was no big deal - they just logged off."



Flash Forward
Experts working on next-generation systems realize the current architecture is outdated, and that wireless and VoIP technologies were added piecemeal to systems that weren't designed for it.


"The system we have is built on an analog platform," said Thera Bradshaw, principal with TKC Consulting Group in Los Angeles. "It served the country well for 40 years and was a public policy success, but the infrastructure that is in place is outdated in a mobile, digital world," said Bradshaw, who's a member of a Washington, D.C., trade group called the 911 Industry Alliance, and former president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials.


For instance, during the April 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech that killed 32, students tried to send text messages to 911, Bradshaw said, not realizing that 911 call centers aren't equipped to receive text messages. They also can't handle cell phone photos or streaming video from closed-circuit TV cameras or devices used by the hearing-impaired.


All that will change, but not for another two to three years. "At the rate we're going, we'll be lucky to have the first fully featured, standards-based NG 911 system in place by 2010," said Roger Hixson, technical issues director of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), a group that fosters the technological advancement of 911 systems.


Hixson stressed that switching to IP networks is just the first step in a long-term process. The NG 911 systems will also require changes to software, databases and workers' procedures.


"Today's systems depend on things built into the phone network dedicated to 911 calling, including special software and databases," Hixson said. "NG 911 will be built on common and multipurpose networks, so hopefully there will be some economies occurring."


The NG 911 systems will run on IP-based networks supporting other applications such as GIS, which are used to support 911 and other business functions like utility mapping and planning. By consolidating stovepiped systems running on their own networks and putting them on multipurpose networks, state IT planners hope to simplify operations and save money.



PSAP in a Box
A key benefit of the greater flexibility and interoperability of PSAPs will be improved emergency response coordination. Hurricane Katrina is the most obvious example in which a "virtual PSAP" would have helped take over the functions of a PSAP call center that was knocked out of commission.


In 2008, Delaware expects to finish connecting its nine PSAPs with an IP network. "It will be great in emergency situations," said Terry Whitham, the state's E-911 coordinator. "We are working on a plan in case we need to evacuate a CAD [computer-aided dispatch] center. If that area is still getting a lot of calls, you can move to another PSAP, log into the original IP address and you're ready to process calls."


In its emergency planning efforts, Vermont is working on what Lipinski calls its "PSAP-in-a-box" concept. "Our emergency planners are very concerned about the scenario of a dirty bomb in New York or Boston sending a half-million refugees fleeing to Vermont," he said. That would double the state's population overnight, and those people would need a lot of services.


Lipinski's office is working on outfitting dozens of laptops with the necessary software so that they could be used as a virtual PSAP at local college and university computer labs.


"We could scale up our call-taking capability dramatically," he said, adding that Vermont plans to train staffers in other positions to be call takers in emergencies. "We can maintain a normal load, yet double or triple the size of our operation in a few hours if need be."



Making the Transition
Besides additional flexibility during an emergency, 911 officials are excited about adding the capability to receive and respond to text messages. "Kids text to everybody, and they will try to text to 911," said Pete Eggiman, director of 911 services for the Minneapolis/St. Paul Metropolitan 911 Board. "It's what they are used to doing, and it's what they'll turn to first in a stressful situation."


Receiving messages directly from automobile alarms, tracking systems such as OnStar and video feeds from bank alarm systems, also will be helpful. Currently these kinds of systems send signals to the alarm provider's call center, where a dispatcher relays the advisory to a PSAP. In the future, a 911 system will receive telematics information directly from an automobile system such as OnStar, and then a 911 call taker could potentially relay information - such as how fast the car was traveling when it crashed - to emergency room physicians.


But Eggiman said the ability to relay that information to police, fire and other first responders presents new challenges.


"Whatever we take in from a caller or bank, we have to be able to deliver to responders in squad cars," said Eggiman. "So we have to start talking about greater interoperability in all applications."


Eggiman said the technological challenges of blending radio, criminal justice and GIS networks are less daunting than the political obstacles. Today these systems are riding on their own networks and they aren't sharing much information, he said.


"There needs to be a converged environment, and that doesn't mesh with how things are funded today," Eggiman explained. "There has to be a way to blend funding streams. We have to get city, county, state and the feds to all play in the same sandbox."


As the architecture is upgraded, the country shouldn't have 911 haves and have-nots, which has been the case in the past: "When we moved to enhanced 911, the rural areas were the last to get it, and when changes were made to handle wireless calls, the rural areas got those last too," Bradshaw said. Policymakers must advocate for the NG 911 architecture and ensure all U.S. call centers get the tools and training to utilize it, she said.


Hixson said NENA's volunteer groups are working to define the features expected of an NG 911 PSAP and the related data protocol standards. For instance, the systems are expected to transfer all data they receive to another agency in the appropriate NENA or Internet data exchange standard format. He admits that the process is time-consuming: "The frustration is, we should have more done by now, and the pace isn't fast enough. There's too much to do in too short a time frame."


Looking back, he said the worst part of how wireless and VoIP were added to the 911 system was that it took several years to accomplish.


"That's not really acceptable," Hixson said. "The next time we have a major innovation in telecom - we need it to be a matter of weeks or months - not years, before we work it into the 911 system."

David Raths  |  Contributing Writer

David Raths is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.

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