Imagine being able to communicate with emergency services from any connected device. This has long been the goal of the National Association of Emergency Numbers (NENA), as their slogan, “Anyone should be able to connect to 911 on any device, from anywhere, at any time,” reflects. This also encompasses the goal of equal accessibility to emergency services for those with difficulty communicating. As information technology continues to progress, outdated 911 systems must find an architecture that allows for fluid updates.
The current 911 system is antiquated; the Next Generation will be IP-based
The current 911 system is made up of four different levels. The level of 911 service in a given area is determined by the location and budget of the individual public safety answering point (PSAP) and the geographic challenges to upgrading to new technology. The idea of Next Generation 911 is to create a IP-based system that is agile, fast, and scalable. This new architecture will provide the fluidity necessary to keep up with the constant innovation of technology.
The most important building block of NG911 is the Emergency Services IP Network (ESInet). ESInet is meant to be a collection of networks providing a highway for voice and other various forms of data to be transmitted to local, regional, state, and national public safety entities as needed. Unfortunately, there are still between 700-1,000 of the nation’s nearly 6,500 PSAPs that do not have internet access.
Along with the ESInet, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has been working to configure IP protocol standards pertaining to PSAP-specific functions. The functions are some of the basic means of collecting data, such as location validation, and emergency call routing. To ensure these functions provide accurate data, there is also a need for a system of databases and data management to keep records current and ensure accuracy.
As with any IP-based service, security is of great concern. The previously mentioned databases will include sensitive information which must be protected. In addition, stringent hacking software will need to be utilized to ensure the emergency system cannot be brought down by those wishing to harm the country’s emergency infrastructure.
A variety of devices will be able to communicate with 911
Gartner estimates that by 2020 there will be nearly 26 billion units installed on the Internet of Things; nearly 30 times the number of units surveyed in 2009. In order to communicate with devices connected to the internet, the new 911 architectures must also be IP-based. Currently, there are devices already communicating through Bluetooth and internet connectivity. There are implanted devices, such as pacemakers, that provide caregivers with real-time information from the device. Imagine a pacemaker being able to automatically alert emergency services based on a specific, programmed algorithm.
Similarly, home alarm systems are also able to communicate information directly to the monitoring location. The notification process can be cumbersome, as the alarm sends the signal to the monitoring station, a person monitoring the alarm processes the signal, pulls the account information, and contacts the local emergency services for the home. NG911 could eliminate many of those steps by directly notifying emergency services based on a preprogrammed algorithm of events.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) conducted a report issued in April of 2011 detailing the increasing costs associated with responding with full emergency equipment to false alarms. It was found that for every ten structure fires to which the fire department responded, they responded to 45 false alarms. As you can imagine, this is a difficult conundrum for the fire service, as it is better to have too much equipment than not enough when on the scene of a fire; however, the cost to respond with that amount of equipment to a false alarm quickly takes its toll on the ever-ebbing budget. Imagine the time and money saved if the alarm system itself could send real-time information regarding smoke and heat detection directly to the responding fire apparatus.
While there may be significant costs associated with the initial upgrades necessary to bring 911 systems current, especially to those areas without service, or PSAPs with antiquated systems, there are many benefits that will positively impact the ability to provide the fastest possible emergency services. The upfront costs will stem from the need to run fiber optic cables that are capable of transferring the influx of data, as well as bandwidth and storage necessary to transmit and receive data from various sources. In addition to these start-up costs, there will be recurring expenditures, such as subscriptions.
One study looks at the cost incurred to upgrade a PSAP from the lowest tier of 911 capability to the highest. As mentioned above, the largest cost impact will be to the smaller PSAP’s as they are less likely to have the updated equipment necessary to accommodate the NG911 data. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates $302 million dollars will be needed for non-recurring costs over a ten-year period for PSAPs of no more than five consoles. On top of those fees, those small PSAPs are looking at recurring costs that range from nearly $6 million in the first year to over $200 million in year ten. Unfortunately, the larger the PSAP the lower the cost, which is counter to the budget for those various centers.
Perhaps the biggest benefit to PSAPs is the ability to transfer emergency calls anywhere in the country. Currently, there are only a select few local PSAPs available to which calls may be routed. For example, if a parent calls 911 to report an emergency concerning their child who is away at college in another state, that call cannot be transferred from state to state. Rather, the telecommunicator would have to collect all pertinent information and research the agency responsible for the jurisdiction where the child resides. The telecommunicator would then provide the contact information to the caller, and likely call the responding jurisdiction themselves to ensure the emergency was reported and being dispatched. There are many possibilities for things to go wrong, and information to be lost in the shuffle. With NG911, the telecommunicator would have the ability to easily transfer that caller to the appropriate jurisdiction.
Additionally, NG911 will allow for appropriately-sized agencies to be the back-up PSAP for those that lose functionality. For instance, if a PSAP is taken offline due to inclement weather, instead of the burden being passed to other, smaller PSAPs in the area, a similarly sized PSAP outside the affected area could begin receiving the emergency calls. This will further ensure emergency calls are being processed in an appropriate and timely manner.
Finally, having an interconnected IP-based NG911 system will greatly impact the ability for agencies to participate in large scale preparedness planning. In the example provided above, these agencies would have likely participated in preparedness planning to ensure the seamless transition in the event of an emergency situation. Additionally, with the implementation of NG911, all emergency responders will have the ability to communicate with PSAPs across the country; even internationally, if needed. The architecture of NG911 supports all 62 international emergency access codes.
PSAP’s are working towards full implementation
Unfortunately, there are no national regulations for reporting 911 information, nor are there any complete databases of 911 or PSAP information. As such, there are no real data on how close we are to nationwide implementation of this new technology. Currently, 39 states are reporting their data to the National 911 Office. Of those 39, only 15 have reported an existing plan for statewide implementation. Only nine of those 39 have implemented some component of NG911, like the interim Text-to-911 step.
As technology continues to grow by leaps and bounds, it is absolutely imperative for our 911 systems to do the same. PSAPs cannot continue functioning adequately with only the archaic technology currently in use, and have the ability to efficiently plan for or respond to large scale emergency events. Interim steps assist in moving forward; however, in order to be successful, the progress must be made as rapidly as possible.