Jerry DotsonJanuary 28, 2020

Overcoming Technology & Funding Challenges to NG911 Adoption

Operators at 9-1-1 centers nationwide answer about 240 million calls a year, according to the National Emergency Number Association. How those calls are handled in an emergency can mean the difference between life and death. Every second counts, which means the ability of a 9-1-1 system to provide emergency responders with timely, accurate information is critical.

Technology undergirds emergency systems, helping both 9-1-1 operators and first responders to quickly capture and transmit accurate data. However, because of the way the existing 9-1-1 networks are built, it’s not actually possible to provide any data, other than Caller ID, to a public safety agency.

Unfortunately, there is a disconnect between today’s technology – mobile devices, apps and enterprise communications – and the fixed communications architectures on which legacy 9-1-1 systems were built. This disconnect presents many challenges for 9-1-1 Call Centers, also known as Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs), and first responders.

Between mid-August and early September 2019, GCN researchers interviewed 23 government workers at the municipal, county and state levels to learn about the state of their 9-1-1 systems, their main obstacles to 9-1-1 modernization and what they have learned from the upgrade efforts they’ve made so far. State emergency department directors, county 9-1-1 coordinators and city police chiefs throughout the country were among those interviewed. Avaya, the exclusive underwriter of this report, did not participate in the interviews or related research.

Participants in this research project overwhelmingly agreed that incompatible systems limit the precision and variety of data available to first responders – a deficit that increases risk both to people seeking help in an emergency and to first responders, according to the report, Systemic Crisis: Technology Gaps Beset 9-1-1 Call Centers.

Making Tomorrow’s Technology a Reality Today

As the report notes, state and local jurisdictions have sought to improve the pipeline of information flowing to first responders, yet many of them have encountered impediments to improving the overall reliability and capabilities of 9-1-1 services. Among the challenges are the high cost of technology upgrades, uncertain funding streams for improvements, poor interoperability, shifting regulatory requirements and a fast-changing technology landscape. Not least of the challenges confronting PSAPs, is the incompatibility of old and new technology.

Digital communications technology has been a boon to emergency systems. For example, the ability to text 9-1-1 makes it possible for a person in distress to silently seek help. Video messaging could enable the country’s nearly 100,000 police, fire and ambulance dispatchers to pinpoint the location of an emergency and observe what’s happening on the ground. Despite those benefits, digital and legacy technology can’t always work well together.

Attempts to integrate legacy and modern systems have been underway for decades. In 1999, the Federal Communications Commission issued two phases of Enhanced 9-1-1 (E9-1-1) rules intended to improve the reliability of wireless 911 services. Those rules enlarged the capacity of legacy systems by enhancing information provided to 911 dispatchers, including callers’ phone numbers and the latitude and longitude of their location. More recently, the Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1) initiative envisions a nationwide, standards- and IP-based communications infrastructure that allows for voice and multimedia communication among 9-1-1 callers, PSAPs and first responders.

NG9-1-1 is “next generation” technology that expands emergency capabilities today – without having to fully replace or reconfigure legacy and E9-1-1 systems. The target date for the national deployment of NG9-1-1 is the end of 2020 – a deadline set by the NG9-1-1 NOW Coalition of NENA, the National Association of State 9-1-1 Administrators and the Industry Council for Emergency Response Technologies. When deployment is complete, “all 9-1-1 systems and centers in all 56 states and territories will have sufficiently funded, standards-based, end-to-end, IP-based 9-1-1 capabilities, and will have retired legacy 9-1-1 systems, without any degradation in service to the public,” according to the National 9-1-1 Program.

The goal is to create a more resilient system that “allows voice, photos, videos and text messages to flow seamlessly from the public to the 9-1-1 network and improve PSAPs ability to help manage call overload, natural disasters, and transferring of 9-1-1 calls and proper jurisdictional responses based on location tracking,” the report states.

The technology for providing those capabilities already exists, but the infrastructure to support the delivery of this information to the PSAP is a work in progress, according to the report. As of 2017, about half of the states and territories had implemented systems capable of processing and interpreting location and caller information for wired and wireless service using NG9-1-1-capable infrastructure.

Budgetary considerations are a huge consideration in the modernization plans of emergency operations departments. Survey respondents said the cost of improving enterprise systems to enhance 9-1-1 capabilities can be prohibitive. The federal government has provided help. In 2012, the federal government authorized a 9-1-1 grant program as part of the NG9-1-1 Advancement Act. On Aug. 9, 2019, the program announced more than $109 million in grants to 34 states and two tribal nations, specifically for NG9-1-1 upgrades. Still, the maximum federal share for projects funded under the grant program is 60 percent. Applicants must match 40 percent of a project’s costs.

Making Perception a Reality

It is interesting to note that the public likely thinks that 9-1-1 systems are more technologically advanced than they are. A state E9-1-1 program manager said the typical person assumes “that we can already send video or that there’s a livestream of the entire city going on at the answering point.” Although that is not the case, 9-1-1 professionals who participated in this research project agree that the perception should become a reality.

The good news is that 9-1-1 systems are becoming more technologically advanced every day. The Avaya Public Safety Team and solution partner 911inform participated in a simulation of a complex terrorist attack and response as part of a public safety/emergency response demonstration at Operation Convergent Response. While the event was not real, it provided a real-world experience that reinforced the importance of unplanned emergency response and the need for the correct technology and appropriate training for first responders. Find out how Avaya’s Public Safety solutions were used in the simulation.

Overcoming Technology & Funding Challenges to NG911 Adoption

Jerry Dotson

Jerry Dotson is the Vice President for Avaya Public Sector. Dotson oversees the design and implementation of communication services to support the various operations of DoD, Civilian, Intel, and SLED  customers.

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