Homeland Security and Public Safety

Tennessee Strives to be a Next-Gen 911 Leader

Tennessee is beginning to deploy a statewide next-generation 911 network after years of planning and saving.

Tennessee officially broke ground on a next-generation 911 network a few months ago, beginning work on a project that had been in the planning stages for years.

Next-gen 911 networks expands upon traditional land  line contact with law enforcement to provide an IP network for enhanced service, a technology that officials say will improve public safety. Tennessee officials believe the state is one of the first to begin the implementation phases for a statewide next-gen 911 network. Officials project the network will be complete in 2013.

The Tennessee Emergency Communications Board is leading the deployment and has been working to create the statewide network since 2005. That year the National Emergency Number Association released a report that stressed the importance of next-gen 911 and how it was essential to upgrade the infrastructure that supports 911 calls. The state board also had a feasibility study on next-gen 911 conducted in 2005, and has since been planning and setting funding aside for the next-gen 911 network.

Lynn Questell, the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board’s executive director, said Tennessee is helping to pave the way for NG 911, along with a few other states such as Indiana, Vermont and Rhode Island.

“Every other state is planning for this, deploying it or wishing they could,” Questell said. “We are among the first to do this but there are a number of other states that are proceeding.”

Tennessee started the early phases of building out the next-gen 911 network last September and upon completion, the state will have two data centers as primary hubs — in Nashville and Knoxville — that will be used for routing 911 calls, said Randy Porter, chairman of the state’s Emergency Communications Board. The data centers will have total redundancy so that if one data center fails, the other will be able to take over all 911 calls without reaching capacity.

“Everything will revolve around those connections out to all the PSAPs across the network,” Porter said. “Everything comes back to those two data centers, all the 911 calls come from the wireless carriers, all of the telephone companies in the state will all go to one of those two data centers.”

Questell said the network will be separate, secure and private but will still run on Tennessee’s statewide IP platform, called NetTN. For this network, the NetTN has partnered with AT&T and Seattle-based telecom provider TCS.

Porter said currently 911 networks in Tennessee are based on multiple infrastructures. Sixty-five of the state’s 95 counties use analog systems, which route calls to a specific county. Twenty other counties are “stand-alone” counties and are serviced by rural telephone service providers.

The new project, based on fiber connectivity, will connect every county in the state. PSAPs in rural areas that can’t connect to the fiber network because of a lack of “last mile” connectivity will be connected most likely through a Tier 1 network , which functions through a settlement-free connection.

“We will have a much greater capacity to reroute calls to specific places based on specific circumstances and transfer calls with much greater ease,” Questell said. “And if some kind of major catastrophe happens, we have 100 percent redundancy in our system with the two basic central offices … in Nashville and Knoxville.”

In the first phase of implementation, Tennessee will route wireless calls on the next-gen 911 network.

Once the next-gen network is deployed, the state will be developing its own statewide 911 database owned and maintained by the state’s 911 board, Porter said.

After the database is developed — which is phase two of the project — the last phase of the implementation will be to move the land line calls to the IP network, Porter said. When completed, the state will be able to route 911 calls using its statewide GIS mapping system.

But citizens who want to send text messages, photos and other data over the network may need to wait for that functionality.

But while the new network will be able to handle information like text messages and photos sent over the network, Porter and Questell said it will be up to the wireless carriers or telephone service providers to provide capability for its users to send that information.

“It’s really up to private industry to develop the texting and the photo-to-911 capabilities [and] specific requirements,” Questell said. “Our job is setting up a platform that the stuff could ride on. But right now there is no texting to a three-digit number.”

Looking Ahead

The end goal of next-gen 911 is to create an interconnected “system of systems,” Questell said. First states will move forward with their own implementations; as time passes, implementations should become easier and cheaper. The idea is that eventually each state’s NG 911 network will be connected together.

Questell said there is no template for deploying a next-gen 911 network, so states like Tennessee are trying  to develop a model for implementation that can be replicated by others.

“There’s a lot of different options on how to move ahead and you have to weigh each of them and figure out what’s best for you,” Questell said. “Every state has to do that. It’s challenging to be among the first.”