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Next Generation 9-1-1

Written by Stephenie Slahor

Discussing where we stand and where we’re likely to head was Roger Hixson, technical issues director for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA www.nena.org); David Jones, past president of NENA; John Melcher, executive vice president of Cyren Call Communications; Jim Goerke, emergency communications consultant of the Melcher Group; and Rick Jones, 9-1-1 center operations issues director of NENA.

Rick Jones (rjones@nena.org) led the discussion, saying that the existing 9-1-1 system is voice only with little data, and as such, it is a challenge to public safety and the citizens served by it. Because of changes in communications, operational processes are locally focused, but Sprint is building out a national Wi-Max network, and 12 cities are scheduled to add it. “It will be huge,” Jones said, and it will likely expand 9-1-1 quickly.

“There are major policy issues that go into NG,” Jones said. Devices are developing. Some already allow, and others will allow, such NG 9-1-1 improvements as interoperability in radio, video, voice, and data. “It will get rid of walls,” Jones said, yet allow virtual networks to separate when security requires that. All of this could be done with one physical connection instead of four, he said.

Integration will occur in which everyone can communicate with one another without buying expensive interfaces, he predicted. Virtual PSAP (public service answering points) will improve the capability to mobilize people located in different geographic areas. Jones said the major providers of 9-1-1 are involved in bringing the new operations and changes. “It’s a non-traditional industry,” he said.

Roger Hixson (rhixson@nena.org) next spoke. He said NG 9-1-1 needs a “standardized platform—IP—with open architecture, and a standards-based design” to give “flexibility, mainstreaming and maintainability.” He added, “A shared infrastructure equals multi-application.” IP gives faster service, equal access and parity of service whether the communications are by wire line, cell phones, PCs, voice over IP, IP wireless, or telematics.” To now, he said, 9-1-1 has been a dedicated structure and that the IP now going on in government applications will be “something 9-1-1 will ride upon.”

With IP, the bandwidth can be expanded. Improved services will come with the support of expanded data capabilities, Hixson said. In its present form, 9-1-1 cannot handle text, images, video and supplemental data access, but with IP enhancement, it can. Shared costs of implementing will maximize the use of public money. With budgets so tight, public safety will be able to do more with less, Hixson said.

With NG 9-1-1 giving increased service flexibility, it will not be geographically limited, he explained. It can be regional, national, or even international, in its scope. It will increase coordination and partnership within the emergency communications community, he said, defining it as a “system of systems, running on a network of networks.”

The present 9-1-1 system of voice call analog phone lines will expand to voice, video, and text from many devices. The current data-by-voice system will be replaced by advanced data sharing. Manual routing will move to a system where PSAP location is immaterial, and routing will be automatic by geographical location, with increased backup. The present, limited ability to handle overflow calls (resulting in busy signals to 9-1-1 callers) will be eliminated by PSAP able to control congestion and reroute callers.

Hixson believes that the earliest NG 9-1-1 could happen would be 2009. The project now is to develop and accomplish an NG 9-1-1 “proof of concept trial.” To work, he said, it will have to be standardized and meet such challenges as revised policies, automatic location identification capabilities, system operations development, and stakeholder education. But with NG 9-1-1, there will be more control of the system and the forms of data and supplemental data it can handle.

Next to speak was John Melcher, who said broadband will benefit NG 9-1-1 through expansion and enhancement of the role of the PSAP in emergencies. “We’re in a media-centric world,” he said, not one based only on voice communications. With new devices that can capture a photo or data about a victim or show a situation in a fire or a crime, there is a need for increased interoperability to be able to take that data from the devices and use it in decision making about handling a situation. Limiting communications to voice only hampers decision making.

“Interoperability runs from the start to the end” of an incident, and is “not just the fire department’s being able to talk to the police department,” Melcher said. “Public safety is a group of islands, (and) very few of them act in a network,” he added, but they need to do so in order that their communications improve not just between agencies, but among agencies and the public they serve.

“It’s not a technological issue, but a policy issue” to get things moving forward, Melcher said. A “broadband trust” could be built with all products and services using a common denominator of IP as broadband so voice and data response is more efficient and so that citizens are better served. An IP national network would give access to what is needed, he felt. It could be “standardized and owned and operated by public safety” and “participated in by public safety,” he said. “Technology can only work if the policy is behind it,” he added.

David Jones next addressed the gathering, saying there are many entities “handing out RFI and RFPs to not three or four, but 30 or 40” agencies. The federal government is interested in NG 9-1-1. Already, the U.S. Department of Transportation has been active in grants for vehicle standards and training, and some highway funds have been tied to EMS projects that have been adopted by agencies in the geographical area where the funds will go. Jones said that with NENA having formed an NG Transition Planning Committee, and the fact that public safety wants to “drive that bus” of benefiting public policy, there can now be a push for what’s needed to move toward NG 9-1-1.

Jim Goerke added that both the present and future 9-1-1 systems must consider such elements as the access network, emergency network, and PSAP network, and the combinations of interactions among them. “Data management is paramount,” he said. Even though there is a limited environment now, we are rapidly moving toward a world that is data based. NG 9-1-1 will have to move forward with that.

Stephenie Slahor, Ph.D., is a lawyer who writes in the fields of law enforcement and security. She can be reached at drss12@msn.com.

Published in Law and Order, Mar 2008

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