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Disaster Preparedness 2011 -- Agencies, first responders and the public can benefit today from Next-Generation 9-1-1

Stephen Meer

A woman in Black Hawk County, Iowa was alone upstairs when her former boyfriend -- who had a history of domestic violence -- entered her home. Afraid that the sound of her voice would reveal her location, she used her cell phone to send a text message to 9-1-1. A few minutes later, police officers arrived at the scene and arrested the ex-boyfriend for violating a court order requiring him to stay away from the woman.

In August of 2009, the Black Hawk County Consolidated Public Safety Communications Center became the first public safety answering point (PSAP) in the nation to implement direct to 9-1-1 text messaging technology. More than two years later, it is still one of only a few PSAPs in the country offering this life-saving service.

This year, along with the deadly U.S. tornadoes, massacre in Norway and Hurricane Irene, came news accounts that some people affected by those events could have benefitted from emergency text messaging. Add to that the obligation we have to better serve the public safety needs of the millions of people in this country who are deaf or hearing impaired and it becomes imperative to make this service accessible to more people in more communities.  

So, why haven’t the majority of PSAPs moved quickly to adopt text-to-9-1-1 and other NG9-1-1 services? After all, emergency text messaging and additional next-generation 9-1-1 services are available today and can deliver new and advanced capabilities to PSAPs, first responders and the communities they serve.

One reason is a misconception among many public safety professionals that the transition to NG9-1-1 is a complex, cost-prohibitive, all-or-nothing proposition. Others believe there will be significant operational impacts on the PSAP call-takers, dispatchers and their managers, and that workloads would increase. While these concerns are valid, agencies can start down the path to NG9-1-1 -- as many are already doing -- and benefit right away, if they take a measured and modular approach.

The current analog system, though outdated and inadequate for the modern digital age, has served our country well for more than 40 years and has certain aspects to it (e.g. automatic location identification) that can’t be traded in like an old car. And, with unresolved financial, technical, regulatory and operational issues still looming over NG9-1-1, it is paramount that the new infrastructure and services be phased in over time.

So, with the time horizon for a complete transition to NG9-1-1 likely to be a long one and requiring the side-by-side, interoperable use of some legacy and Internet Protocol (IP) elements, where should the public safety community start first?

There are a number of easy and affordable ways to begin the transition to next-generation 9-1-1. The State of Vermont chose to start by upgrading to a statewide emergency services IP network (ESINet) that interconnects eight PSAPs, allowing them to transfer emergency calls and any accompanying data from one PSAP to another, through advanced NG9-1-1 voice technology. This capability proved beneficial when floods caused by tropical storm Irene forced the evacuation and temporary closure of one of the PSAPs.

Similarly, the City of Durham, NC, chose to begin its migration to next-generation 9-1-1 by deploying an ESINet and putting the building blocks in place to support text messaging, cell phone pictures, video clips and other data services. Noting the success in Black Hawk County, the Durham Emergency Communication Center also began a six-month emergency text messaging trial. 

Other agencies, like the Miami-Dade Police Department, are initiating their transitions to NG9-1-1 by installing new and advanced IP-based call processing equipment (CPE). The Miami-Dade PSAP, one of the largest and busiest in the U.S., upgraded to CPE that delivers greater control and flexibility for both landline and wireless calls, while providing a feature-rich work environment designed for the next-generation of 9-1-1.

The advanced capabilities of next-generation 9-1-1 will put more demands on, and require greater support from, even the most polished GIS systems. One of the best things agencies can do now to prepare themselves for the move to NG9-1-1 is to start working on ways to integrate legacy wireline call routing with geographic information systems (GIS). The scope of GIS boundary data will need to be significantly more detailed and granular than it is today.

Still another avenue PSAPs and other public safety agencies can take to initiate their move to NG9-1-1 is by using enhanced data applications that improve situational awareness and the safety of first responders and the public. Many of these applications are commercially available today, such as detailed information about gunshots, hazardous material spills and building floor plans.

Now is the time to get serious about replacing the legacy 9-1-1 infrastructure in the U.S. NG9-1-1 allows agencies to provide faster and better service, not only to the general public, but also to emergency responders on the front lines. The next generation of 9-1-1 also enables PSAPs to collaborate and share information with other NG9-1-1-enabled agencies in their region and throughout the country.

But life-saving next-generation 9-1-1 networks and services must be deployed using a practical migration path from the existing legacy system in a manner that keeps pace with today’s rapidly changing communication technologies. And it must be done in a way that gives the public safety industry time to work through and resolve the remaining obstacles. Because when lives are at stake failure is not an option.

Stephen Meer is co-founder and CTO of Intrado Inc. He can be reached at:

[email protected]



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