Profound changes are coming to the public safety sector, particularly to 911 centers. Next Generation 911 systems and the nationwide public safety broadband network—which is being implemented by the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet)—will generate a tremendous amount of new, actionable data in real-time that dramatically will enhance situational awareness, in turn improving emergency response by leaps and bounds. In time, even more usable information generated by the billions of data-collection sensors already in place—whose numbers will reach into the trillions in the not-too-distant future—will be leveraged by 911 centers, which will become the center of the information universe, at least as it pertains to public safety.
The Consumer Technology Association’s International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) wrapped up earlier this month in Las Vegas, and 911 and public safety communications should be paying attention now more than ever before.
“Let’s go invent tomorrow instead of worrying about what happened yesterday.” – Steve Jobs
Our nation’s 911 centers, the nexus of citizens who need help and our dedicated first responders, are on the brink of a major evolution. Some would say that it is on a level similar to how the iPhone revolutionized mobile communications a decade ago.
The foundation currently is being laid for end-to-end Internet Protocol (IP) communications from the caller (or sensor) all the way through to the first responders in the field. Freed from the limitations of 512 characters (or less) of emergency caller data, the 911 sector will integrate systems and networks previously impeded by proprietary protocols and siloed networks.
The convergence of Next Generation 911 (NG911) and the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) will give 911 professionals and first responders alike a seamless emergency communications environment that enables sharing of critical multimedia data—between the public, 911 centers, and first responders. Gone will be the days of, “This network/system doesn’t talk to that one.” Or, “That data isn’t available.” Or, “There’s no way for me to send you that information.”
The flywheel of progress continues to turn and we all owe it to everyone who calls 911 in their greatest time of need to keep it moving in the right direction. Discussions are taking place on how and why Emergency Services IP Networks (ESInets)—which will transmit emergency calls and related data—and the NPSBN need to be interconnected to share critical information needed by 911 centers and first responders alike. There are many compelling use cases that speak to the need for a strong integration—all of which come back to the workflow of our emergency responders. Keeping our responders safe, leveraging the data to make better decisions, and ultimately improving outcomes for those who need help, are all reasons that NG911 systems and the NPSBN must work together.
For a while now, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) has been describing the nationwide public safety broadband network (NPSBN) that it is implementing in partnership with AT&T as a “mission-critical” communications network for public safety. And it is entirely possible that the network will live up to its promise. But that is not the type of thing that the public safety sector will accept on face value—it is going to need proof. That’s just the way it is in public safety, a sector where lives are on the line and seconds count, every day.
Late last year, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) expressed his concerns regarding the vulnerability of today’s 911 systems to cyberattacks. He specifically cited a Ben Gurion University research study that said it would be quite easy to infect mobile phones with a bot that would unleash a denial-of-service attack on the 911 system, possibly to the degree that service could be disrupted across an entire state or even a major portion of the nation.
The former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler responded by stating that Next Generation 911 (NG911) systems represent a solution in this regard.
No communications system can be safeguarded completely against cyberattacks—the hackers always seem a half step ahead—and NG911 systems are no exception. However, they do offer the ability to dynamically reroute emergency calls to 911 centers in the next city, county or even the next state, which would mitigate the effect of any cyberattack that would bring local operations to a halt. This ability is lacking in today’s legacy 911 systems.
Reaching a critical limit
The most compelling part of Wheeler’s response was that FCC is “close to the limit” of what it can do to make NG911 service a reality nationwide. He called on Congress to “create national enablers to accelerate the transition to NG911.”
The enablers already exist in the form of the NG911 NOW! Coalition, which consists of leading 911 industry organizations, including
- the Industry Council for Emergency Response Technologies (iCERT),
- the National Association of State 911 Administrators (NASNA), and
- the National Emergency Number Association (NENA)
These organizations work alongside the NG911 Institute and other organizations to move NG911 implementation forward.
The Coalition’s goal is that all 911 centers in all 56 states and territories will have NG911 systems in place, and will have retired all legacy 911 systems, by the end of 2020.
Money is needed to make this goal a reality. A lot of it. This is why Congress must play a critical enabling role. Congress must commit to funding nationwide NG911 implementation. It can be done as demonstrated years ago when it funded nationwide broadband data network deployment.