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NC Sheriffs Comm Center & Public Safety Company Pioneering E-9-1-1 Multimedia Communications
Author: Larry Brinker & Richard Shaffer
The Union County, North Carolina, Sheriff’s Office and Emergency Communications Center have teamed up to deploy a first-of-its kind next generation technology. NexGen Global Technologies provides the solution that enables these public safety agencies to more effectively manage critical incidents by capturing and transmitting multi-media intelligence exchanged between citizens and first responders.
For instance, suspects in the Boston Marathon Bombing incident of April 15, 2013 were identified through photographic and video images. If these images could have been transmitted immediately to a 9-1-1 center and forwarded to all area law enforcement officers within a few minutes, they may have been able to identify and apprehend the suspects within hours instead of days.
NexGen Global Technologies, a public safety company with offices in Florida and North Carolina, pioneered the development of a unique E9-1-1 Multimedia Communications system to allow the public to send photos, videos and text that uses their Multimedia Incident Retrieval System, (MIRS) into 9-1-1 Centers in real time. NexGen successfully engineered a way to make that happen now and have demonstrated the viability of its technology.
“NexGen managing partner Michael Romano said that their patent pending technology allows a 9-1-1 operator/dispatcher to simply activate MIRS after receiving a call for emergency service from a cellphone.
The MIRS will then send a simple text message to the caller’s cell phone, who can quickly attach the image and hit ‘send’. That image comes directly to the 9-1-1 dispatcher who can view it and immediately forward it to hundreds of first responders.
The Union County (NC) 9-1-1 Communications Center
Currently, the government and wireless carriers are still working on a way for people to use every day cellular photo, video and text messaging capabilities to communicate with 9-1-1 call centers — but they are a long way from putting all of the pieces in place. The nation’s 9-1-1 Centers are behind in wireless technology advancements. Some 9-1-1 PSAPs (Public Safety Answering Points) currently operate on antiquated analog infrastructure and those that have upgraded to the digital age still lack the capability to handle SMS (short messaging service) and MMS (multi-media messaging service) generated from mobile phones.
So, nowadays using your smart phone or any cell phone to dial 9-1-1, assuming there is no outage, you should be able to reach 9-1-1 and expect to text or deliver them an image you captured on your phone camera.
Not so....“The problem is [that] existing 9-1-1 systems have no ability to receive those kinds of data. They're part of the telephone age, not the Internet age” said Trey Forgety, director of government affairs at the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). "A case in point was the attempted Times Square car bombing in 2010. The bombing was foiled because a citizen saw a suspicious parked van and called 9-1-1. "In that circumstance it could have aided the police, fire, bomb squad, etc., if the person was able to send a photo of the license plate, which could have been processed by automatic recognition systems, "Forgety adds. "And it would come up that this was a vehicle that had been flagged to be watched. That's a prime example of the need to provide that capability in order to enhance the richness of the call,” he adds.1
Where the national networks are now
While the NexGen 9-1-1 System is being used today, it should not be confused with the national effort to bring the same “next-generation” 9-1-1 capabilities to the public.
The country’s major wireless carriers are working together with the government to eventually make it possible for the public to initially communicate with 9-1-1 emergency communications centers using text messaging.
But, while a patchwork of trial systems is being explored around the country and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) continues to seek input on how to mesh the various technologies, full implementation of emergency text communication between private citizens and first responders is years, possibly a decade away.
Given the complexities of what the government is trying to do, certain mandates for unavailability bounce back messaging and a nationwide text to 9-1-1 strategy by the wireless carriers is slated for mid-late 2014, yet these do not include photos or video. Some of the technology necessary to make that happen has yet to be completely fielded and adopted by all communication systems, which could push that date back by years.
According to Barbara Jaeger, past president of the NENA Executive Board, “Real-time text capability is part of a larger, standardized, long-term solution called Multi-Media Emergency Service (MMES).”2
In order to implement MMES and open the door to full text and multimedia E 9-1-1 capabilities, both the wireless carriers and the 9-1-1 centers must have their technologies upgraded and in place, communicating with each other — something that first requires extensive funding from the states nationwide.
“This leaves us with a time gap that could be 8 to 10 years before full, seamless real-time text to 9-1-1 is available across states and the nation unless NG9-1-1 is prioritized and adequately funded,” she said in an interview for NENA.3
That’s not to say that progress is not being made. According to a recent statement from the FCC, “The top-four wireless carriers in the United States have agreed to speed up their efforts to support text-to-9-1-1 capabilities.”
While the networks and communications organizations continue this ongoing process, NexGen Global Technologies’ company executives point out that their NexGen MIRS has already been tested and now is being used in real world situations.
The idea behind the NexGen 9-1-1 System
In January 2007, NexGen’s Michael Romano was in New York on a consulting job. While waiting in a restaurant for his table to be ready, he was scanning the front page of The New York Post when he came across the headline “Mayor to recruit cell phone photographers to fight crime”.
“I went on to read the article, and the next line stated the technology does not exist,” Romano said. “I started researching it because I could not for the life of me fathom why the technology did not exist. I designed a flow chart to determine how it would work and by April 2007 started developing what needed to be done from a technological standpoint.”
By September of the following year, Romano was able to conduct a small beta-test with a Department of Homeland Security Fusion Center. The first generation was a basic design with the intent to merely permit the exchange of image intelligence amongst Fusion Center partners. However after several years of development modifications to keep pace with rapidly changing advancements in wireless technology the current robust platform was launched.
Former FBI Counter-Terrorism Supervisor Richard Shaffer and managing partner of NexGen developed close ties to the NC law enforcement community during his career. He quickly recognized that the technology was an immediate solution to a long-standing problem in the emergency response community, that 9-1-1 centers don’t have the ability to send or receive photos or video from phones nor able to get it out to first responders in real time.
“The NexGen MIRS provides an immediate fix to that need — by providing public safety for the first time with the ability to immediately move photos and video and, of course, text” Shaffer said. “… And, that is something that needs to be addressed today, not next year or in 10 years which makes the Union County, NC deployment essential to public safety in 2014.”
“Today Union County has taken the next step to provide its community with the technology that will greatly improve public safety response and enhance the quality of life for the citizens,” stated Larry Brinker, Director of Emergency Communications. “By implementing this vital emergency component, Union County continues to strive for excellence in the emergency response sector.”
“This is something that will benefit every citizen, as well as every public safety agency," said Union County Sheriff Eddie Cathey. "NexGen represents nearly real-time intelligence and reporting capability," said Union County Chief Deputy Ben Bailey. "This service will enable us to be more effective in the field as a result of the rapid exchange of information."
While most of the applicable uses for the program appear to be law enforcement driven, NexGen will also help to serve both Fire and EMS agencies as well. “A photo from the scene of a fire before arrival can be beneficial to responding engines and commanders, allowing for them to begin assessment and establishing a deployment plan,” said Larry Brinker.
While the direct text only concept has a valid but very specific purpose for select incidents the NexGen platform can also open a text session with the 9-1-1 Center once the initial call is placed thereby affording the caller an added layer of safety and security if in a situation where their location could be compromised with a continued conversation.
The NexGen MIRS uses a secure cloud based Web application that only requires the 9-1-1 Centers to have Internet access. The simplicity of the system makes it extremely attractive because it is managed directly by the 9-1-1 operator, works across all wireless networks, with any cell phone and does not require an app to be downloaded nor any additions or changes to the Center’s existing IT infrastructure. Most importantly, the technology requires a voice call to be placed to the 9-1-1 Center before any MMES can be transferred. This prevents arbitrary and unrequested images being forwarded without any context or explanation or association to the related incident.
Maintaining the system at the agency level is simple. Union County Database Manager Amanda Smith advises that it only takes a few minutes each week to update the information for the field units, ensuring that the name, unit number, e-mail address and cell phone numbers are up to date.
Given that there are over 331 million wireless connections in the U.S. today, "We are now past the majority of these wireless devices being smart phones, and that number is growing exponentially," according to NENA CEO Brian Fontes. Users are increasingly moving away from voice as these broadband connections grow: Only one third of the traffic traveling over wireless networks is voice communications; two thirds is data, with people sending texts, videos and pictures.
Yet, the technology is not keeping up with the times -- much of it is about 40 years old and primarily voice centric communications. "In today's world most people communicate in a non-voice context," said Fontes; "so it’s essential our 911 systems keep pace with 21st century technology to be able to receive information in the way sender is sending it."4
Larry Brinker served 24 years before retiring as Police Chief from Plainfield, Indiana. He also served as Executive Director of the Hendricks Co. Communications Center in Indiana and currently serves as the Division Director of Emergency Communications for Union County, North Carolina.
Richard Shaffer is a retired FBI agent and supervisor who served more than 30 years in law enforcement. He is currently a managing partner for NexGen 911 Global Technologies.
1, 3, 4. Shein, Esther: “911 centers Not Ready for Mobile App Era,” Information Week, posted online 11/29/12 http://www.informationweek.com/byte/911-centers-not-ready-for-mobile-app-era/240142891, retrieved 12/13/13.
2. No Byline, "Addressing Misunderstandings About Text-to-9-1-1: An Interview with NENA's Barbara Jaeger," 9-1-1 Magazine, posted online dated 1/29/13 at http://www.9-1-1magazine.com/Text-to-911-NENA-Barbara-Jaeger-Interview, retrieved 12/13/13.