One year later: The NET 911 Act of 2008

July 1, 2009

          Trends in telecommunications mobility and convergence have put the nation's 911 system at a crossroads. The growing market penetration of both mobile telephones and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephony has underscored the limitations of the current 911 infrastructure. The 911 system, based on decades-old technology, cannot currently handle the text, data, image and video that are increasingly common in personal communications and potentially critical to emergency response. Each introduction of a new access technology (e.g., wireless) or expansion of system functions (e.g., location determination) requires significant engineering and system modifications.

     Unlike landline 911 calls, not all wireless 911 calls are delivered to dispatchers with automatic number information (ANI) and automatic location information (ALI), two pieces of information that aid in identifying the telephone number and geographic location of the caller.

     These issues drove the passing of the Ensuring Needed Help Arrives Near Callers Employing 911 Act of 2004 (ENHANCE 911) that requires all parties involved support the standards in two phases. Then about a year ago, the U.S. Congress passed the New and Emerging Technologies 911 Improvement Act of 2008 (NET 911 Act). Since then, what has it achieved? How has it affected the country's public safety answering points (PSAP)?

     Image of a successful E911 service

     In addition to difficulties wireless 911 calls pose, the increasing use of VoIP communications has compounded the problem because when a 911 call is on some interconnected VoIP services, caller location cannot automatically be determined.

     Given these challenges, successful E911 service implementation requires the cooperation of multiple distinct entities: Wireless carriers, wireline telephone companies (also known as local exchange carriers), VoIP providers, and (PSAPs). For example, when a 911 call is made from a wireless telephone, the wireless carrier must be able to determine the location of the caller, deliver that information to the database provider and transmit that location information to the PSAP, and the PSAP must be capable of receiving such information.

     In order to receive ANI and ALI, PSAPs must upgrade their operations centers and make appropriate trunking arrangements (i.e., establish a wired connection between the PSAP and the networks of the local wireline telephone companies) to enable wireless E911 data to pass from the wireless carrier to the PSAP. Once a PSAP is technologically capable of receiving this information, the PSAP can submit requests to wireless carriers for E911 service. Under Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations, this request triggers a wireless carrier's obligation to deploy E911 service to a PSAP.

     Upgrading the 911 system to an IP-enabled emergency network will enable E911 calls from more networked communication devices, enable the transmission of text messages, photographs, data sets and video, enable geographically independent call access, transfer, and backup among and between PSAPs and other authorized emergency organizations, and support an ''interoperable inter-network'' of all emergency organizations. Some PSAPs are able to fund upgrades from their existing budgets, but other PSAPs must rely on funds collected by other means to maintain operation and make capital improvements to 911 services.

     State of the industry

     Just as it took years for the ENHANCED 911 Act to achieve noticeable progress, the NET 911 Act didn't immediately fix the issues that it intends to solve, nor are there many PSAPs that can show significant progress directly due to the passing of this important legislature. Some entrenched vendors and industry experts even grumble that it hasn't accomplished anything. However, both culture and infrastructure take time to change; time that isn't standing still while more communication technologies and standards arrive on a seemingly monthly basis.

     First and foremost, the Act brought the issue to a head, garnered industry-wide attention and created the first wake-up call to all vendors and stakeholders that these requirements aren't going away.

     At a glance it would seem the Act hasn't accomplished enough — or even much at all. But one needs to step back and look at the forest, not the trees. Matter of fact, imagine this Act was intended to protect and help a community-owned forest. This "forest" needed significant enhancements and specific care for growing critical new species of trees and foliage.

     Unfortunately, there are different owners throughout this "forest" and everyone must work together to deal with the problems. Without the needed funds, some must rely on community grants. Passing an act that effects positive change in this forest would be required to create a unified plan and infrastructure that solves the problems.

     Various progress has been made in different parts of our "forest," but obviously much more of the work still needs to be done. This doesn't mean the Act has been a failure — it appears to be achieving the positive changes it intended.

     A PSAP can purchase technology that meets the proposed regulations of the Act and still not be able to handle the latest communication and dispatching challenges. One PSAP may receive the latest telecommunications protocols, but its computer-aided dispatch (CAD) or call receipt product aren't yet upgraded to support and utilize those data elements. Other PSAPs may be even further ahead, handling challenges beyond the intentions of the Act, but have had to compromise in other areas, such as choosing a small vendor with limited operating history, but advanced in innovation. Bottom line, PSAPs are evaluating and deploying solutions piecemeal, while they wait on other infrastructure improvements, or budgets, to complete the migration.

     What should your PSAP do?

     The two most common challenges PSAPs face are meeting the Wireless Phase I and II requirements and transitioning to a NG911-ready system. If you're involved in PSAP decision making and are faced with replacing aging systems or purchasing new technology for the very first time, you need to consider what your most immediate requirements are and where you need to be 10 years from now.

     Due to the ever-changing communication enhancements and technology advancements, it would be wise to consider "beyond NG911" roadmaps from vendors you are considering. You should keep in mind that NG911 means different things to different vendors, so an in-depth review with each vendor about how it will meet your PSAP requirements could be critical, especially in more complex sites.

     Generally speaking, however, your PSAP will likely coincide with one of the two following situations:

  1.      You have significant investment in complex legacy systems, joined together roughly by custom interoperable pieces. Replacing everything is definitely not a consideration, nor would it be practical to attempt. PSAPs supporting large populations often have chosen best of breed products from different vendors. The integration between these components is purchased from the appropriate vendors.

         This model has served larger PSAPs well, enabling them to solve the toughest across-the-board requirements that no single system could handle. This class of PSAP faces significant challenges when migrating to new technology. Often new technology isn't scalable and reliable enough, or at least hasn't been proven to handle those two critical aspects. Larger PSAPs have more hardware and software to replace, more workflow issues to solve, more personnel that must be (re-)trained, more disparate pieces that must operate seamlessly and generally more demands are put on every link throughout the architecture, often exposing weak link issues. Significant planning and budget allocations will be required and you will often have to address and purchase additional customization or interoperability services.

         Due to the complexity and cost of this situation, you will need to create and follow a fairly detailed plan and likely should wait until most of the relevant pieces and appropriate standards have solidified, along with deployments at a range of mid-tier sites. In some cases, you may need to meet the bare minimum of compliance requirements, keeping costs to a minimum, while you either wait on progress or finish evaluating more leading edge deployments. You will likely be working with proven vendors that have worldwide exposure and a solid reputation in the industry, such as Intergraph Corp., PlantCML, OSSI Sungard, Positron and Intrado.

  2. Your less-complex PSAP needs to replace aging legacy hardware or purchase call-taking, CAD and/or mapping components for the first time — or a mixture of both.

     As new products have been introduced that exceed NG911 compliance, smaller PSAPs have found they are able to invest in this technology to obtain similar functionality as the larger PSAPs without the complexity, IT administration requirements and cost of a multi-vendor solution.

     Unfortunately, you may be confronted with limited regional support capabilities and less-known vendors with fewer references. In many cases, these risks can be offset by focusing on open solutions that use commercial-off-the-shelf products that are easily interoperable and modifiable. Due to the current significant cost differences and use of standard hardware, you may be able to purchase fault tolerant systems that can provide 99.99 percent uptime to offset any support issues of these leading edge vendors. Emergency CallWorx, 911-Inc., Zetron and Solacom are a sample of vendors to consider.

     Keep in mind that NG911 is another stop on the first response roadway. Rather than focus on checklist requirements, instead try to map the vendor's capabilities to the benefits your PSAP requires. While some of the infrastructure you need may not yet be in place, purchases you make now can be NG911 capable, merely waiting for full utilization until the final piece is in place. Looking at benefits provides a way for you to best understand your workflow constraints and how best to solve them. In some cases, the smaller PSAPs are best served by "beyond NG911" capabilities.

     Betty Hall has worked and consulted with numerous public safety companies along with a wide range of high-tech companies providing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), network security products, information technology software, services and computer hardware. She can be contacted at [email protected].

     Grant funding arrives

     On June 5, 2009, a final rule was approved by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Department of Transportation (DOT); National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Department of Commerce (DOC) for implementing the E911 grant program authorized under the ENHANCE 911 Act of 2004. The Act authorizes grants for the implementation and operation of Phase II enhanced 911 services and for migration to an IP-enabled emergency network. This grant program was established to provide $43.5 million (less administrative costs) for the implementation and operation of Phase II E911 services and for migration to an IP-enabled emergency network.

     The agencies published a notice of proposed rule making to prescribe the criteria for grants under the E911 grant program. The notice identified the eligible uses for the E911 grant funds — implementation and operation of Phase II E911 services or migration to an IP-enabled emergency network. Specifically, the agencies proposed that grant funds and matching funds be used either for the acquisition and deployment of hardware and software that enables compliance with Phase II E911 services or that enables migration to an IP-enabled emergency network, or for training in the use of such hardware and software.

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