The New Emergency Communications Superhighway

July 17, 2018
The current public safety communications system is analogous to an old roadway with sunken grades, no signage and dead-ends…that’s about to change with NG911 and FirstNet.

2017 brought exciting changes for public safety communications. A number of public safety answering points (PSAPs) implemented aspects of Next Generation 911 (NG911) and by the end of the year, every U.S. state and territory opted-in to the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet). Public safety is well on the way to being truly operable. The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) wanted to answer the question of next steps by inviting over 130 representatives of police and sheriff’s departments, emergency communications centers and businesses specializing in emergency communications to participate in a Critical Issues in Policing Series meeting.

In November 2017, the group issued their report, “The Revolution in Emergency Communications” which outlines what agencies need to know about moving forward, including bridging the gap between consumer communications capabilities and first responder capabilities. The main elements: progressing with NG911 and FirstNet together. Critical Issues spells out the key issues that public safety leaders need to address today while keeping an eye on how to implement the new systems of tomorrow—and it’s not all about technology.

The current state of emergency communications

The changes in public safety communications can be looked at like a road system. The current system is a series of old back roads rife with sunken grades, no signage and leading nowhere. The basic technological backbone of the current 911 system is based on an analog, copper wire, circuit-switch telephone system designed for landline telephones. Critical Issues explains this infrastructure is “old, out-of-date and prone to failure.” It also does “not support the ways that the vast majorities of Americans communicate today.”

Diane Culverhouse, manager of public safety communications with the City of Aurora (Colo.) agrees. “It needs to be upgraded,” she says. “When you think about how you answered or made a phone call back in the 70s, we’re answering 911 like that today.” When you consider 80 percent of the 911 calls today are made through wireless phones, it’s apparent this infrastructure needs to change and it will through both NG911 and FirstNet. They both create the foundation for the new superhighway being built for emergency communications.

The superhighway of emergency communications is how information travels to PSAPs, which are like visitor’s centers and also how the information travels out to the field, between the cars and back to the PSAPs. Like NG911, FirstNet is helping replace the old analog, voice-only roads with a new digital, LTE, mission-critical, multi-media supporting infrastructure. With everyone opting-in, public safety leaders have agreed to adopt a piece of the superhighway.

Engineering the superhighway

The transition to NG911, according to will need three “big-ticket items”: a new Emergency Service IP Network (ESInet), updated Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) for call-takers to process 911 calls, and new NG911 hardware and software, which will operate with the ESInet, routing and managing each NG911 call.

Along with allowing multi-media, the ESInet infrastructure seamlessly connects all the PSAPs creating a “network of networks” on a regional, statewide or even national basis. Vermont was one of the first states to put the initial components of a statewide NG911 in place. In 2007, they implemented one statewide ESInet that connected all eight of the state’s PSAPs. The success of this strategy proved itself in 2011 when Hurricane Irene hit southern Vermont flooding nearly every river and stream in the state. This flooding forced the evacuation of the state’s second busiest PSAP, but because of the redundancy and resiliency of their NG911 infrastructure not one 911 call was missed or dropped.

Now that FirstNet has been given the go-ahead, their work has just begun. In 2018, they project several milestones and activities, including expanding the network and building out Band 14, driving public safety innovation, securing emergency communications and continuing to engage with public safety. “One of the things that FirstNet is doing is we’ve had more than 400 meetings with public safety officials,” says Bill Schrier, senior advisor, FirstNet. Listening to public safety, seeing what they are doing and gathering innovative ideas is helping them stay in tune with what the actual needs are. “We had a meeting recently with Houston Police Department, where we had 40 public safety officials talk about how they are doing business today and how it can be improved,” he explains. “During Hurricane Harvey, a Houston PD officer drowned and they realized they had no personal accountability system to see where officers are. This was a need that emerged from some of our meetings.”

Direction of travel

“In many cases, when there are initiatives like this, you tend to focus on the technology first,” explains Dan Twohig, VP of Software Enterprise Go to Market Team, Motorola. “It’s the sexy, fun part of the solution. But when you look at the challenges of NG911 and FirstNet, it’s the policies and the governance related to getting capabilities adopted and operational that needs to be the focus.” A number of issues need to be decided, including ownership, management, liability and security. A main element that has public safety telecommunicators waiting to see how it affects them is workflow. With data going in and out on the new superhighway, not only citizen and officer-created but also Internet of Things (IoT), voice-only operations will have to change. “Current PSAPs will become real time analytics centers,” says Schrier. “It will be a marriage of the Real Time Crime Center and the PSAPs.” This change will require increases in staffing and new training.

AT&T Public Safety Solutions Vice President Jim Bugel agrees, “Your voice-centric PSAPs will become something more like a Command/Control Analytic Center.” Not everyone agrees that PSAPs and their already over-burdened employees are most appropriate for this new analytical role, instead advocating for actual Real Time Crime Centers and “mini-fusion centers” like Chicago Police Department’s Strategic Decision Support Centers. The large amount of data coming into the PSAP and being pushed to the field also has the added risk of containing threats, both in reference to cybersecurity and false information.

Critical Issues advises that cybersecurity experts will play an enormous role in protecting police systems from hackers and other criminal offenders. Regional, statewide and even national approaches to cybersecurity for NG911 systems are being recommended. Ronald Hewitt, director, DHS Office of Emergency Communications explains, “It is not reasonable to expect a high level of cybersecurity at 6,000 separate public safety answering points, since most of them are very small. So, there will need to be some kind of an architecture at the state level, and maybe even larger, that provides the cybersecurity framework. Because these new 911 systems will be interconnected, they’re only as strong as their weakest link.”

The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Task Force on Optimal PSAP Architecture proposed Emergency Communications Cybersecurity Centers (EC3) across the country. EC3s will provide intrusion detection and prevention prior to pushing the information to the PSAP. At the same time agencies need to worry about hackers and viruses, they need to be aware of the potential for digital data to increase spoofing and swatting incidents as it is easily manipulated.

Points of interest

For those who want some technology, there are plenty of ideas being leveraged on the NG911 and FirstNet superhighway. The open standards created by FirstNet allow software developers to create applications for law enforcement which will be offered in the App Store. To kickstart the generation of ideas, FirstNet hosted its first Public Safety Hackathon in March. Set in San Francisco, more than 230 developers came together to build mobile apps and IoT solutions for first responders. The Best Use Case for Law Enforcement winner, CitiSense addressed many citizens’ hesitation to call 911 to report suspicious activity. The app encourages, “See something, say something.” And it makes it easy. An interesting element of the app is the “common solution” aspect showing how simple ideas can be invaluable to first responders and bring public safety capabilities into the 21st century.

Following this successful event, in April, the AT&T IoT Civic Hackathon in Indianapolis allowed 600 participants to develop even more innovation. “The main purpose of the Hackathon is to engage developers and generate interesting ideas,” explains Schrier. “Not really to develop new apps for public safety. Police officers need rock solid apps that have gone through a lot of testing. You might generate an idea but it will be months or years for it to be solid and usable for police officers and firefighters.” To ensure safety, APCO International has created the Application Community (AppComm) to “facilitate collaboration and serve as the single trusted site for public safety apps.”

Even with all the issues of technology, governance, workflow and policy, the impact of this new superhighway continues to show promise. Recently, the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) used a process called Analytic Assisted Emergency Response to model a timeline for emergency response to a fight between students in a high school hallway. Comparing a traditional with a NG911-FirstNet response showed a decrease in time from 12:50 to 8:50. Not only did the response time decrease, but officers arrived on scene with more information and greater situational awareness. “One thing to understand is that the entire transaction in the call for help has to be on the same platform in order for it to actually happen,” explains Laurie Flaherty, coordinator, National 911 Program. “There is the person calling for help, there is 911 in the middle and then all of the emergency responders on the opposite end of that transaction. If a citizen takes a photograph of a suspect and you want that photograph to get to the officer in the patrol car, then all three pieces of that emergency communication system need to be operating using that digital infrastructure.”

Culverhouse agrees, “If we have this great FirstNet technology with all of this data flying around, how great is that? But if your dispatch center does not have the capability to receive it, none of it will be useful.”

FirstNet is here, being deployed and is available today, Schrier says. But NG911 needs to happen, too. FirstNet is mandated by law to integrate with NG911 when it becomes available. And experts agree when, not if, is the operative word. “There is a fair amount of confusion about the role that each one of those plays,” says Flaherty. Agencies believe they are done with NG911 because they have FirstNet in place, but that’s only a part of the transaction. “Understanding how the two are both equal and necessary is important,” she says. Twohig agrees, “They don’t have to be deployed together, but the benefit to push information out to the edge is key. It’s two different programs, but definitely related.”

Many aspects of the NG911/FirstNet superhighway have yet to be determined. APCO is working on Project 43 which explores NG911, FirstNet and other broadband-driven technologies, including IoT. Even discussions of how artificial intelligence can augment 911 and CAD are occurring. One area where experts agree is that law enforcement leaders need to be at the table as these changes are engineered. “Law enforcement manages half the PSAPs in the U.S.,” Flaherty points out. “Their role in this is huge not only as an end user of 911 information but as the entity that manages a lot of these facilities. It would certainly behoove them to learn as much about this as they can.”

Critical Issues notes a key outcome as agencies move forward: focusing on the needs of the first responding officers in the field—not supervisors, intelligence analysts, or others. “The promise of these new technologies is to help first responders do their jobs more safely and effectively, and not to overwhelm them with too much information or information they can’t use. In addition to technology, PSAPs and public safety agencies must have strong policies and workflows in place for the technology to succeed.” With these elements being put into place, communications innovations continue to move forward and soon public safety will have their own emergency communications superhighway.  

About the Author

Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University.

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