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Securing 9-1-1: the next generation

Like most everything in our modern existence, 9-1-1 call centers are changing with the continual evolution of IT. No longer just based on traditional phone lines with a computer system serving as a backup, “next generation 9-1-1” will see call centers switching to VoIP lines and able to accept e-mails, text messages, cell phone pictures and video.


According to Jeremy Smith, a senior solutions architect covering IT security for crisis communications and emergency response systems manufacturer PlantCML®, there is public demand for such expanded capabilities. “We see that [people] in emergency distress would like to be able to communicate via new forms,” Smith said, explaining how these expanded capabilities could be useful in a crisis. “You might have a child who’s in the trunk of a car, and he has a cell phone and maybe he wants to text 9-1-1.”

Being able to take advantage of these new streams of communication will provide 9-1-1 call centers with more of a total picture of people in crisis, allowing them to respond more efficiently and effectively. “What we get when we move to NG9-1-1 is the ability to receive more rich data sets so we get to take advantage of more than just voice or location data,” Smith said. “We have the ability to incorporate different data sets like OnStar crash notification, or maybe it’s e-mail, or Twitter. We have new ways to communicate with 9-1-1.”

Of course, bringing 9-1-1 call centers fully online carries with it the risks inherent in any online activity: spam, viruses, malware and other network-hacking attempts. Smith argues that the benefits inherent in next generation 9-1-1 call centers outweigh these risks. “But by the same token, organizations need to reset their understanding and expectations of security,” he said. “The 9-1-1 industry as a whole has not taken a proactive approach to security. They haven’t had to because they’ve all been in a well-guarded desert, not connected to anything else. They need to take a serious and deep look at security and that includes from a budgeting and financial standpoint. New sources of money need to be identified.”

PlantCML makes a conscious effort not get too specific about what threats to 9-1-1 call centers exist. “We obviously don’t want to make it too easy for the bad guys to exploit things,” he said. But, he acknowledges, anytime you can connect a network or even just a piece of equipment to the Internet, you face an established set of traditional security threats such as viruses, hacking attempts and denials of service. “Every standard threat that any entity would have normally been dealing with now becomes an issue for 9-1-1,” Smith said. The risk is even more so for 9-1-1, as motivation for hackers to attack it is likely to be high, regardless of whether or not a specific purpose can be identified. “Simply put, it’s 9-1-1; it’s an attractive and sexy target,” Smith said. “The barrier will be a lot lower now to get to that.”

Luckily, security providers such as PlantCML have recognized this coming storm for some time, and have been preparing next generation 9-1-1 call centers to come online securely. “We’ve been selling firewalls and other security-related products to customers that may not be ready for NG9-1-1. We’re helping to build that foundation for them so when it hits, they’re already heading down the right path. I have customers who will come to me and say, ‘I don’t really know what I need to do’ and we’ll come in and we’ll help them do something as simple as just straight budgeting for it. We really think it’s a big deal, and we want our customers to be prepared.”

VESTA Pallas 2.6 SP 2

PlantCML recently unveiled a new all-in-one IP-based call-taking solution that will allow small call centers to easily transition to NextGen 9-1-1 when the time is right. The VESTA® Pallas™ 2.6 Service Pack (SP) 2 is a state-of-the-art converged voice and data solution that provides IP-enabled strategy alongside conventional functionality. Designed for centers with two-to-12 call-taking positions, the VESTA Pallas 2.6 SP2 is a significant upgrade for current VESTA users. VESTA Pallas 2.6 SP2 with Pallas PBX 4.0 includes many powerful new features and capabilities including: improvements in IP telephony with the introduction of the IP Key Expansion Module (KEM) with 24 additional programmable keys; support of IP phones or hybrid phone configurations with TDM/digital handsets deployed in any combination; and Element Manager, a new PBX maintenance program that eases configuration and facilitates faster backups.

“VESTA Pallas 2.6 SP2 is the call processing solution we need now and moving forward,” said Teresa York, Capital Area Council of Governments (CAPCOG) Assistant Director of Emergency Communications. “We have been using this solution in the Hays County Sheriff’s Office and San Marcos Police Department for administrative and emergency calls. Not only is it cost effective and easy to use, VESTA Pallas 2.6 SP2 is IP-ready so we truly have a next generation 9-1-1 solution.”


PlantCML has partnered with McAfee® and views the computer security company as a huge cornerstone of its security plan. Phyllis Schneck, McAfee’s VP and director of Threat Intelligence for the Americas, explained how PlantCML is benefiting from McAfee Global Threat Intelligence.

“As you transform from traditional analog telephones to an IP basis to enable your communications, you inherit all the threats in the IP network, and this kind of intelligence can help better filter locally based on what you know globally,”

Schneck said. Schneck pointed out that all types of infrastructure systems, whether they be energy, water, finance or communications, are transferring over to IP-based networks for more efficiency and better connectivity but that some have more leeway than others in terms of time to adapt to a learning curve and troubleshoot.

“Those [9-1-1] systems protect lives. A delay is unacceptable,” she said. “That’s where it makes sense to put global situational awareness so traffic that comes into those systems can be without performance degradation and see no reduction in speed of communications. Traffic can be screened so you don’t experience denial of service packs or taking code, which is actually designed to do something someone else wants [your system] to do. If someone’s in a car accident, the virus that shouldn’t have gotten in never keeps someone from not answering the phone. You give your systems the benefit of Internet communications without some of the threat.”

But some level of threat will remain; it remains to be seen whether or not next generation 9-1-1 call centers will be completely secure. “We can help our customers bring the right solutions to bear to dramatically reduce their risk. And that may not involve solutions that we sell: It may involve other solutions that we don’t get a cut of, but that’s not what it’s about,” Smith said.

Of course, some online threats are not all that threatening. Spam, for example, does not initially seem like a huge problem. But McAfee recently reported the estimated 62 trillion spam e-mails that get sent each year consume 33 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, enough to power 2.4 million homes. Clearly the potential for spam to tax the resources of 9-1-1 call centers is great.

Since cell phones became prevalent, 9-1-1 call centers have labored under the burden of the volume of calls they receive from cell phone users accidentally pressing the 9-1-1 button common on many phones. Spam sent to 9-1-1 call centers will present a similar challenge, as false alarms with the potential to burden service. “As we move forward, it’s going to become an issue,” Smith said. However, he feels that given the protections being put in place, spam likely will not be “like a firehose” hitting 9-1-1 call centers. “It’ll move a little bit slower than we may have seen it move in other instances.”

Another thing to consider is that next generation 9-1-1 will not be an instantaneous switch. For example, Smith doesn’t see all 9-1-1 call centers switching over to VoIP technology immediately. “We still see a large footprint of traditional analog phone systems, and while that’s changing, it’s probably not going to go away anytime soon,” he said. So there is a trend moving toward VoIP, but Smith sees 9-1-1 call centers on both types of phone systems for the foreseeable future.

Looking Ahead

As next generation 9-1-1 call centers fully mature, emergency operators may become more likely to work in IT, come from an IT background, or need IT training and education to work in the field. But Smith noted that 9-1-1 call centers have been utilizing PC-based systems for some time, requiring call takers to be computer savvy. “They have to understand how to operate Windows and those basic PC concepts,” he said. “As we move to NG9-1-1, they’re certainly going to have to understand basic computing concepts, but I don’t think they’re going to need to be IT experts.”

This is why the systems protecting next generation 9-1-1 call centers need to be state of the art, protecting against online threats both known and unknown. Schneck’s example: “If there’s a new threat no one’s seen before, and it arrives at your gateway, and your gateway protects all of your electronic machines including the one that keeps up the phone that gets answered when someone’s in an accident, you don’t want that stuff getting in—even if the industry doesn’t know about it yet.”

Daniel Margolis is an editor and freelance writer based in Chicago. His work has been published in magazines, trade publications and websites nationwide, including XXL, Wax Poetics, Complex and AOL Digital City.

Published in Public Safety IT, May/Jun 2009

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