Homeland Security and Public Safety

Next-Generation 911: What You Need to Know

An explanation of what next-generation 911 is, implementation challenges and how soon it will become a reality.

Texting on a cellphone
There is a movement under way to change to a next-generation 911 system that takes advantage of capabilities like text and video messaging. Image from Shutterstock

On May 1, 2010, a terrorist attack in New York City’s Times Square was thwarted when street vendors noticed smoke coming from a vehicle in which a homemade bomb had failed to explode. Imagine if those street vendors could have used their cellphones to send pictures or video of the vehicle and its license plate to a 911 call center. What if the 911 center could then push that data to first responders and police to get the location from GIS and buildings visual in the photos?

“They could really capture the dynamics of the event,” said Brian Fontes, executive director of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). “That is what I call an information-rich 911 call, which will be supported in a next-generation 911 system.”

What Is Next-Generation 911?

Fifty-eight percent of Americans own smartphones and people now routinely send text messages, photos and videos from their mobile devices. And although 75 percent of all calls to 911 are wireless, most 911 centers today are still tethered to the voice-centered world of communications of the last century and are unable to receive text or photos.

The existing 911 system faces difficulties in supporting text or multimedia messaging, according to NENA, and it lacks the capability to interconnect with other systems and databases such as building plans and electronic medical records.

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The very structure of the current 911 system is rapidly going out of date. “It is analog network-based,” said Roger Hixson, technical issues director for NENA. “You can’t find people in the phone companies knowledgeable about the old technology anymore. We have to evolve to survive.”

There is a movement under way to move to a next-generation 911 (NG911) system based on modern Internet protocol-based networks that take advantage of capabilities such as text and video messaging. And NENA has done years of work on developing the i3 architecture standard that vendors will follow.

“The intention is to have interconnected networks,” Hixson said. “That type of interoperability requires standards. People in public safety also indicated that they wanted more flexible systems not just in terms of multimedia versus voice, but also in terms of their ability to pick different vendors and have them operate together, so they weren’t locked in with just one vendor.”

The deaf and hard-of-hearing will especially benefit from an upgrade, because it will be easier for them to reach 911 with their phones without requiring additional devices. Looking not too far into the future, it could also harness the technology of biomedical devices, such as a defibrillator that could automatically call 911 during a medical emergency. Increasingly popular automatic collision notification systems, like OnStar, could be routed to 911 and change the way a dispatcher responds to a serious accident.

Beyond receiving and sending multimedia, there are other benefits to the new types of networks. Public safety answering points (PSAPs) will be able to transfer calls and activate alternative routing to share the burden during an emergency or when PSAPs are closed by disaster. For instance, during Hurricane Katrina, 38 call centers were disabled and people in those areas were unable to reach 911. In contrast, Vermont has implemented a modern IP-based network linking its eight PSAPs. When Hurricane Irene took one of them offline in 2011, the other seven were able to seamlessly answer calls for that area. The next-generation system promises to allow seamless information sharing between 911 centers, first responders, trauma centers and other emergency response entities.

Linked PSAPs will also be able to share resources like GIS databases rather than each having to purchase its own.

“From my perspective, it will allow our 911 centers to function in the 21st-century world of telecommunications,” Fontes said. “It will allow for information — voice plus video and data — to move seamlessly from consumer to the 911 center, and then ultimately to first responders participating in FirstNet, the wireless public safety broadband network.”

What will NG911 take to implement? Find out on page 2.

David Raths  |  Contributing Writer

David Raths is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.