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Realities of Next Generation 9-1-1
Author: Randall D. Larson, Editor
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
In a story posted Sunday by Amber Jamieson in the online New York Post which we paraphrased earlier this morning, New York City Councilman Mark Levine (D-Manhattan) was emphasizing that a video showing survivors hiding from an armed terrorist in a Paris café highlighted the value of text-to-911 technology. The ability for those trapped survivors, noted Levine, to silently text 9-1-1 could save lives and help direct responders. This technology figured in a bill that Levine co-sponsored last August proposing the implementation of an updated 9-1-1 system that would allow people to send text messages to emergency dispatchers. The “Next-Generation 9-1-1” system would be invaluable in coordinating responses to terrorist attacks like that in Paris and elsewhere earlier this month.
A “Slow and Ragged” Next Generation Emergency Network
In response to Levine’s arguments, or at least coincidental to them, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler put together an op-ed in the Monday (Nov. 23) New York Times, supporting the need for an accelerated transition to next generation 9-1-1 systems but underlining the reality that the 9-1-1 system isn’t yet ready for the iPhone Era.
“Simply put, the communications technology behind the 9-1-1 system is dangerously out of date,” wrote Chairman Wheeler. “Currently, the [9-1-1] centers handle about 240 million calls a year, an increasing number of them from cellphones. But many local 9-1-1 call centers can’t receive a text, photo, or video from a person in need - capabilities that are considered commonplace for any American with a smartphone. Worse, while our nation makes the transition to broadband networks, too many of our 9-1-1 call centers rely on decades-old telephone technology - technology that is no longer being supported by commercial vendors and prone to failure.
“The good news is we know what to do,” Wheeler added. “The nation’s 9-1-1 call centers need to upgrade to “Next Generation 9-1-1,” or NG9-1-1. NG9-1-1 links 9-1-1 call centers to the latest Internet Protocol-based networks, uses mapping databases and software to route calls and pinpoint the real-time location of 9-1-1 callers, and supports voice, text, data and video communication… NG9-1-1 will make our 9-1-1 system more accessible and more reliable, and it will dramatically improve emergency response.
With the larger majority of the nation’s 9-1-1 Centers not yet ready to migrate their call centers to NG9-1-1, and seemingly far from it, Wheeler explained that the transition to NG9-1-1 has been a “slow and ragged” process, “increasing overall cost and risk of failure, while leaving us well short of our goals of improving emergency response and saving lives. In addition, while some federal money has been set aside for studies and NG9-1-1 transition challenges, it’s a drop in the bucket.”
This slow implementation, while understandable, is not excusable, Wheeler charged, warning that this “fractured implementation leaves Americans at greater risk.
“To accelerate the transition to NG9-1-1,” Wheeler continued, “the F.C.C. adopted rules last year to ensure that mobile providers enable the delivery of texts to 9-1-1 (which some carriers provide free of charge),” he said, adding that the FCC has proposed modernizing the 9-1-1 governance structure to ensure reliability of our public safety networks is not compromised as technologies change.
“Today’s 9-1-1 service involves a complex quilt of new providers in addition to traditional telephone companies, so it is important for local, state and federal authorities to clearly define their roles and responsibilities, especially during events like service outages,” Wheeler concluded. “Everybody that is part of the 9-1-1 call-completion process needs to be held accountable to make sure that the most important call any of us will ever make goes through.”
(read Chairman Wheeler’s full op-ed here)
A supportive statement was issued later Monday from Patrick Halley, Executive Director of the NG9-1-1 Institute, a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization that works with the Congressional NextGen 9-1-1 Caucus to promote deployment of advanced and effective 9-1-1 and Next Generation 9-1-1 (collectively, NG9-1-1) services throughout the nation. “The NG9-1-1 Institute applauds Chairman Wheeler’s recognition of the need for additional funding to enable the transition to fully IP-based next generation 9-1-1 systems,” said Halley. “One of the most important infrastructure investments we can make as a nation is in our 9-1-1 system – a system relied upon nearly 250 million times every year. As technology advances, so too must our emergency communications networks, and sufficient funding is a critical element of that evolution.”
Clearly, a close and complementary partnership between technology, operations, and management both from within the 9-1-1 Center administrations, nationwide, and from without, by the federal, legislative, and vendor partners who mandate, drive funding to, design, and implement the changes needed to reach the next level of 9-1-1 services so urgently needed, as Councilman Levine made so relevant. 9-1-1 Industry leaders such as Halley and others within the National 9-1-1 Program and even FirstNet, which is working to develop a similarly enhanced “next generation” interoperable communications system between responders nationally, need to work closely them but it’s equally important they maintain their network ties with the user end at the other end of the operation – the State 9-1-1 agencies and coordinating networks, the 9-1-1 Center administrators, so that local needs are understood and figured in the process.
Another Considerarion: Who’s Answering the iPhones?
For many years as a communications supervisor in a metropolitan fire service 9-1-1 Center, I strove to keep the human side of emergency dispatch recognized, especially when new procedures, technologies, protocols, and various “new & improved” ways of doing things were introduced, inevitably increasing workload and challenging the learning curve of even veteran personnel. Bringing training in early, giving the dispatch staff a voice in the development and implementation process, and simply ensuring they understood that their interests were being taken into consideration – especially in a critical and rapid-changing industry responsible to mandates from outside levels that often seemed to overlook consideration of those who were actually doing the heavy lifting.
It may seem like a long way from Washington DC to Anytown Dispatch, USA, but the comparison is apt. Somebody far down the ladder will be administrating, and somebody a bit further down still will be performing, tasks under the Next Generation system. Some already are even now. Hopefully they’re able to share what they are learning and experiencing with their neighbors so they can become prepared when the NG9-1-1 Van rolls up to their iDispatch Center door full of new contraptions, immense spools of cable, and thick binders full of new ways of doing an old job.
A top-down implementation mandate, however funded, may satisfy the higher levels of responsibility in achieving important consideration such as those City Councilman Levine raised, as far as we have to go to truly accomplish the – but it’s my hope that some consideration is taken into account of the end user at the local 9-1-1 Center as these major changes begin trickling down the mandate pipe. Those who provide the direct voice-to-voice (not to mention the text-to-text and the click-to-click) contact with our public in distress will be given as early an opportunity to begin facilitating these business changes as possible and maybe have a say in how they are implemented for optimum user-friendliness and new-system-adaptability within their individual environments.
As Chairman Wheeler emphasized, it’s still a long way off. But changes are being made and, as he noted, some proactive agencies are actually NG9-1-1 capable right now. What this means is that, sooner or later, the “tele” in telecommunicators is going to be suddenly switched out for… well, something else. Maybe we’ll all be called “infra-communicators,” to denote all the new methods by which we’ll be communicating apart from the venerable but so-Last Century device, the telephone. Kind of has a Star Trek ring to it.
In the meantime, awareness of how NG9-1-1 will change the way you do business – at the console or in the manager’s office – so don’t be caught unawares. If you’re not being told – ask. If they’re not asking, begin to inform. Knowing what’s coming down the information highway about NG9-1-1 is the first level of preparedness. Sharing that information is how you can begin to avoid preparing for disaster.