Emergency upgrade

Next Generation 911 (NG911) is coming to your agency, and the time to begin planning and training is now.

What is NG911?

“Next Generation 911 just means one thing: the ability to communicate digital information over a new, hosted network for 911,” says Lisa Hoffmann, Deputy Director of the Communications Division of the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management. “The current 911 network is analog—and that’s nationwide—so, digital media cannot be accepted over that technology.”

Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to the advancement of 911, describes the implementation of NG911 as “moving our 911 system into the 21st century,” by replacing current analog service with an IP (Internet Protocol)-enabled system, which will be capable of providing public safety communications beyond voice, to eventually include text, data, photos and video.

Reality vs. public perception

With smartphone technology as pervasive as it is (statistics show that more than half of U.S. adults have smartphones), it’s no wonder the general public expects 911 technology to at least equal the level of sophistication of the now commonplace devices most of us have come to take for granted. “It confuses people a little, because they understand that their cell phone is a digital piece of communication [equipment],” Hoffmann says. Since they can call 911 successfully from their cell phones, shouldn’t it stand to reason that they could text 911 from their cell phones? “What happens when you dial 911 from a cellular phone is that it sends a digital radio signal, which can be converted through the analog system at a switch. And then when we transmit back, it’s being converted again…but it’s invisible to the user.”

“You can’t text 911? Wow, that’s shocking!” says Lorie Hedrick, of Kuna, Idaho. Yet, that’s the reality of the limitations of an antiquated system which hasn’t seen much in the way of upgraded technology since its inception. “You can text somebody in China, but you can’t text 911 right now,” Hoffmann says, “…when there’s a public perception that you should be able to get this service, then we have to work to meet that need.”

Traci Pimintel, a San Francisco resident, says, “Sometimes you can’t talk when something’s happening,” as when there’s an intruder in a home or a school. The shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 provided grim evidence of the disparity between public expectation and reality. Many of the victims and witnesses of the horrific events of that day tried to text 911, but their messages were never received by emergency dispatchers.

“What we’re looking at, for the very near future, is the ability to accept text,” according to Hoffmann. “Next Generation has been evolving in the industry, where the technology is concerned…the telephony equipment providers have developed products that can accept, and deliver, some of the media that we’re talking about: text, definitely…pictures, not so much yet, but that’s probably coming in the near future. And then we have to develop systems to be able to accept them in the 911 center.

We have a large hearing- and speaking-impaired community in San Francisco; we feel it’s an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) issue, and we should be able to treat their calls as we do any other 911 call…and really, that’s the goal we see for texting…for the people who really need to communicate with us [through] an alternative mechanism.”

Obstacles to implementation

SMS (Short Message Service) is defined by PC Magazine Encyclopedia as, “The common text messaging service available on cellphones and other handheld devices.” This service was originally designed for casual messaging, with no ability to prioritize messages, or to confirm transmission, receipt or message failure. And, although the four major U.S. wireless service providers (Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile) voluntarily agreed, ahead of an FCC mandate, to provide text-to-911 service to requesting Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) by May 15, 2014, there will likely be few agencies with capable PSAPs by that time.

“We aren’t sure what the [State of California 911] system is going to look like on the build out,” Hoffmann says, “whether it’s going to be a statewide architecture that would probably take a long, long time to build out—or whether individual Public Safety Answering Points will host their own ability to do these applications through, [for example] SIP, (Session Initiation Protocol).”

For San Francisco, because they’re a busy call center which employs automatic call distribution, SIP would require a system, routed through an independent server completely separate from the 911 system, and a dedicated dispatcher at a stand-alone station, doing nothing but fielding text-to-911 calls. Hoffmann adds that “when wireless rolled out, two percent of our 911 calls were from wireless phones. Now, 70 percent of all of the 911 calls we get are wireless.”

She anticipates the same thing with text, starting off with a very low volume of text-to-911 calls, which gradually increases as people become more accustomed to the newly acquired capability. So, at least until text-to-911 calls ramp up over time, to pull a dispatcher from a call-taking or dispatching function just to field the odd text-to-911 message would be an inefficient use of staff hours, and a strain on the remaining dispatchers still handling voice calls. Hiring extra dispatchers to staff the station would be cost-prohibitive, because it takes 5.5 employees to staff one 24/7 position (considering days off, vacation, etc.)

In other agencies around the nation as well, obstacles in the form of legislation and funding can be impediments to NG911 implementation. NENA’s Director of Government Affairs, Trey Forgety, indicates that NENA is helping to “set the stage for NG911 rollouts around the country. But, it’s not just a single, nationwide system,” and implementation will occur on a state or regional basis, which could take 3 to 5 years or more.

Some states’ public utilities commissions have had legislation governing 911 operations on the books for “40-plus years, never anticipating wireless,” and NENA is serving as a “central clearinghouse for best legislation, participating in policy formulation, and filing comments.”

And, though each state has a mechanism for funding 911 equipment upgrades (usually through a tax on phone services), because so many states and municipalities have struggled with recession, sometimes dedicated 911 funds have been diverted for other uses. Add to that the fact that federal dollars are scarce, and the task of finding funding is particularly daunting. “There’s no separate federal funding for 911,” says Fontes, “the Agricultural Department Rural Utility Service has loans,” which could help some rural agencies, “but those are loans, and will somehow have to be paid back.”

According to a report commissioned by the National 911 Program, a full transition to NG911 could cost anywhere from several hundred thousand to several million dollars, depending on various factors, including existing telephone equipment. That estimate doesn’t include extra staff hours during the ramp-up stages. “SETNA (State Emergency Telephone Number Account, the 911 funding mechanism for California) doesn’t pay for our people, but it does pay for our equipment.”

Forging ahead

The San Francisco call center is engaged in a Computer Aided Dispatch system upgrade, currently, and hopes to begin the planning stages for upgrading their telephone equipment near the start of 2014. “But you have to write the scope of work, then you have to do the planning, then you have to write an RFP [to equipment providers], so it’s going to take a while to do all of that,” Hoffmann says, “we anticipate it being a year to two years before we can upgrade our phone equipment.

At that time, we will be buying a product that can take and deliver text-to-911. We prefer to have it come through the 911 system so we get some semblance of an address with it, and at least a telephone number for callback.”

NG911 technology is still new, and there are a lot of exciting innovations on the horizon. “When Superstorm Sandy struck, 911 call centers in the storm’s path were damaged,” Fontes says, and emergency communications were severely hampered. But what if, during a disaster, you could move calls away from affected areas, to a call center in a remote location? That technology already exists in the private sector, and many companies are using it to route calls during high volume periods—not to the center which is geographically closest to the caller, but to a center with the capability to take the call, and transmit information to the resource closest and most able to assist the caller.

Fontes went on to explain how improved interoperability, scalability, efficiency of connectivity and shared databases are more of the many advantages NG911 will provide to public safety agencies.

When undertaking a task so monumental as upgrading to NG911, it’s sometimes difficult to know where to start. NENA, APCO (Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials), the National 911 Program, and a host of other organizations offer helpful information on their websites on how to get started. Because, where NG911 is concerned, it’s not a question of “if,” anymore—it’s a question of “when.”