9/11 Anniversary: US gets serious about fixing emergency communications

At the 10-year mark of the nation's most devastating terrorist attack -- and one of its biggest disasters of any kind -- the United States is finally getting serious about overhauling its emergency response systems, particularly its workhorse 9-1-1 call centers.

The Federal Communications Commission is pushing Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG 9-1-1) systems, which use Internet standards such as IP to replace analog, voice-centric technology developed more than 40 years ago.

BACKGROUND: Standard for Internet-based emergency calls nears completion

NG 9-1-1 systems are more reliable because they have automatic failover between calls centers. They can accept texts, photos and videos, providing additional multimedia information to help first responders. And they provide improved access for hearing and speech-impaired citizens. For enterprise customers, NG 9-1-1 is better at pinpointing the precise location of emergency calls originating on campus networks.

NG 9-1-1 deployment faces several challenges, including how to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to upgrade the existing patchwork of city, county and state-run 9-1-1 systems.

The biggest obstacles for NG 9-1-1 deployment are "funding and how you deploy it," says Roger Hixson, technical issues director for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). "The deployment approach affects the economics of it and the funds required to do it."

"We're in a gradual transition to NG 9-1-1. [Call centers] run by cities, counties, regions and states will implement different pieces of the technology at different rates," says John Chiaramonte, lead associate with consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton. "Unfortunately, it gets down to money. Funding is one of the biggest challenges facing 9-1-1 authorities."

NG 9-1-1 is geared to be one of the hottest issues in the telecom industry in the months ahead.

In August, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced a five-step action plan for transitioning the nation to NG 9-1-1 services. Steps include completing the standards required to accept photos, video and text along with voice information, creating a governance framework because no single government entity has jurisdiction over 9-1-1 services, and developing funding models for the necessary hardware and software upgrades.

"The world of information and communications technology is completely different ... from 9/11," Genachowski told an audience of first responders. "The unfortunate truth is that the capability of our emergency response communications has not kept pace with commercial innovation -- has not kept pace with what ordinary people now do every day with communications devices."

Genachowski said the FCC is taking steps to accelerate NG 9-1-1 deployment, including launching new rule-making efforts and soliciting public comments. "It's vital that we identify cost-effective ways to bring these new communications technologies to 9-1-1," he added.

The FCC's NG 9-1-1 effort coincides with other government efforts aimed at boosting national emergency response systems. The Obama administration wants to invest $10 billion in a nationwide interoperable broadband network for first responders, and various proposals for funding this public safety network are floating around Capitol Hill.

"I expect NG 9-1-1 to be absolutely at the forefront of debate over the next six months," says Trey Forgety, NENA's government affairs director. "There is legislation pending on the Hill. This issue has gotten a lot of traction recently."

ROUNDUP: What our emergency response systems still can't do

Under development since 2004, NG 9-1-1 standards are mostly complete. NENA issued an architecture document in June that outlines the networks, components and interfaces that will allow 9-1-1 services to run on private, IP-based networks.

"We built the architecture on the basis of a future vision of the telecom process, assuming the carriers will eventually go to IP systems and interfaces for 9-1-1 services," NENA's Hixson says. "The call routing and data handling within the architecture can be implemented today, but with transitional aspects to allow it to work with the older technology that current exists."

States that are leading the way toward NG 9-1-1 deployment include Vermont, which has deployed an all-IP architecture, and Indiana, which is using IP for wireless calls. In April, Cincinnati Bell announced availability of its NG 9-1-1 services, while Tennessee, Texas and Kentucky are in various stages of design, procurement and installation.

"There needs to be coordination on a nationwide level regarding rollout of NG 9-1-1," Booz Allen Hamilton's Chiaramonte says. "We really need to get to a point where people are working together, and they're all going in the same direction.''

How much NG 9-1-1 systems will cost depends on how states, counties and cities administer them. Statewide systems tend to be less expensive and easier to upgrade. In southern Illinois, 16 counties banded together to upgrade to NG 9-1-1 in a more cost-effective manner.

Nobody has even a ballpark estimate for how much it will cost the nation to migrate to NG 9-1-1 services. Most of the money for operating 9-1-1 call centers comes from fees that are added to residential and corporate wireline and wireless phone bills. However, some states misappropriate 9-1-1 funds and spend the money on other expenditures -- a practice that NENA is hoping will be outlawed by new federal legislation.

"Every funding option should be on the table," Forgety says. "We need to find the way that works best for the country. Some proposals include 9-1-1 service rolls into the Universal Service Fund, a new federal tax, or all sorts of novel proposals such as every broadband connection would be subject to a 9-1-1 fee because it will now be possible to make 9-1-1 calls from a laptop."

Another hurdle is the regulatory framework, given that federal agencies are pushing for the new technology while local agencies must buy it. The FCC is expected to issue a proposed rulemaking in September that describes the regulatory framework for NG 9-1-1.

"There is going to have to be a lot of collaboration between the FCC and their state counterparts," Forgety says. "What I hope is that the commission will begin to show some very strong leadership in assisting the states as they move forward with NG 9-1-1."

Upgrading to new technology also creates issues for 9-1-1 operators, dispatchers and managers. And there's a huge need for public outreach to explain the new services.

"We've done a great job educating the public on 9-1-1. If you have an emergency, you know to call 9-1-1," Chiaramonte says. "But as we start rolling out new features, the public needs to be aware of the proper use of these services. Just because in Black Hawk County, Iowa, you can send text messages to 9-1-1 doesn't mean that's going to work elsewhere."

With proper planning, funding doesn't have to be a stumbling block for NG 9-1-1 deployments. Vermont upgraded from an ISDN-based system to a TCP-IP based system in 2007, and it paid for part of that upgrade with efficiencies gained by closing two call centers.

IN PRACTICE: Hurricane Irene puts Vermont's new 9-1-1 system to the test

This year, Vermont switched to a hosted 9-1-1 service from Intrado that provides dynamic call routing at its remaining eight call centers. Vermont will spend $10 million on its Intrado contract between now and 2015.

"The biggest thing that's holding up next-gen 911 is the mistaken belief that it's going to cost so much money that it's impossible to move," says Jim Lipinski, Enhanced 9-1-1 IT manager for Vermont, adding that the cost of NG 9-1-1 won't be prohibitive if states plan ahead and upgrade gradually.

The risk of not deploying NG 9-1-1 is "when it finally becomes something that states must do, it will be such a huge cost," Lipinski says. "By doing this incrementally, we're getting immediate benefits, but we're also shedding the legacy baggage that will make it more difficult to upgrade in the future."

Experts say it could take another five to 10 years for 80% of the nation's 9-1-1 call centers to be as advanced as Vermont's.

"The 9-1-1 system is 43 years old. The technology is largely unchanged. We did bolt on wireless 9-1-1 and VoIP ... to the existing technology. But newer technologies have emerged, and the 9-1-1 system is still struggling to adapt and advance and embrace these communications [other than] voice," Chiaramonte says. "There's no line in the sand for when we need to upgrade, except to say that many [call centers] are dealing with very old technology. It's because of great care and feeding that these systems have been able to continue working so well."

Read more about lan and wan in Network World's LAN & WAN section.

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