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...

“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.