Homeland Security and Public Safety

Transition to Next-Gen 911 Requires Governance, Funding Changes

There’s a movement under way to evolve to a next-generation 911 system based on modern IP-based networks that take advantage of capabilities like text and video messaging.

Jessica Mulholland

Fifty-eight percent of Americans own smartphones. 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 are still tethered to the voice-centered world of communications of the last century and are unable to receive text or photos.

The very structure of the current 911 system is rapidly going out of date.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 the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). “You can’t find people in the phone companies knowledgeable about the old technology anymore. We have to evolve in order to survive.”

There’s a movement under way to evolve to a next-generation 911 (NG911) system based on modern Internet Protocol-based networks that take advantage of capabilities like text and video messaging. NENA has done years of work on developing standards that vendors could follow.

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.

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

Yet if the benefits of NG911 seem obvious, the transition itself is by no means easy. There are many issues that states and regions need to overcome relating to technology standards, the process of transition, governance and funding. Creating regional or state networks of previously autonomous 911 authorities raises many issues. Complicating matters is that each state handles 911 differently.

Colorado is a good example. Daryl Branson, executive director of the nonprofit Colorado 9-1-1 Resource Center, explained that 911 is very much a locally controlled service in his state. Many states have some level of state coordination, such as a 911 office or board. “But in Colorado we don’t have anything like that. The only oversight of 911 service at the state level is the Public Utilities Commission.” And the utilities commission is tasked only with overseeing the quality of service provided by the carriers, Branson said. “That presents some challenges for local-control states when they want to try to transition to a type of network that is regional or statewide in nature, which is what NG911 would be.”

Stakeholders in Colorado are trying to define a new path because there is no desire to give up local control or create a new regulatory or oversight body at the state level, Branson said. There have been investments in preparation for NG911 in many parts of the state.

“In the Front Range corridor from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, there’s an understanding that this is the direction we have to go, and a lot of authorities have put in structures to get themselves ready for an IP-based future,” Branson said. “But in rural areas of the state, in some cases they see the potential, but in other cases it seems very far away and I don’t think it is very high on their list of priorities.”

Speaking at a Feb. 25 Public Utilities Commission workshop, Matt Goetsch, 911 coordinator for the Montrose County 911 Authority, said, “We have some concerns about going to the added expense for features that as a smaller authority and PSAP we may not need for some time.”

Joseph Benkert, counsel for Boulder Regional Emergency Telephone Service Authority, which has four PSAPs, said, “We use a hosted IP telephone system. We could implement NG911 pretty easily at any time.” But he said there are several unanswered questions like, when does it make sense to do so on a cost basis? And when are the features and services going to be available? “Our concern is somewhat with the expense of those services and features that may only benefit a small number of people. And where would we take money from to pay for those services or features?” Benkert asked. “Because it is a zero-sum game among the public safety agencies.”

The 911 community has expressed wishes that the federal government make more grant funding available for the transition.

“I don’t think anyone at the local level wants to see the federal government do anything that looks like it is taking over local provision of 911 service,” Branson said. But he noted that while the feds are spending up to $8 billion on the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) to connect first responder agencies with wireless broadband, they have so far detailed plans to spend just $115 million on NG911.

“Clearly, their priority is on FirstNet and not on NG911, but the way I look at it, those are really two sides of the same service. Getting information from the public to the PSAP is the NG911 part,” Branson said. “And they are spending money on the back end, which is getting information from the PSAP to the first responders. But if you can’t get that information from the public to the PSAP first, you’re missing half the equation.”

David Raths  |  Contributing Writer

David Raths is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.