“Congress Needs to Step Up and Champion Next Generation 911” – Urgent Communications

March 23rd, 2017

Posted In: Industry Insights

Congress Needs to Step Up and Champion Next Generation 911

Originally published in Urgent Communications, November 2016

By Nancy Pollock

Earlier this 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 indicates that 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.

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 Next Generation 911 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 is an ability that is lacking in today’s legacy 911 systems.

Another element of Wheeler’s response is even more compelling. He stated that the FCC is “close to the limit” of what it can do to make Next Generation 911 service a reality nationwide, and again called on Congress to “create national enablers to accelerate the transition.”

Next Generation 911 Systems by 2020

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)—that are working in cooperation with the NG911 Institute and other government and academic organizations to move Next Generation 911 implementation forward. The Coalition’s goal is that all 911 centers in all 56 states and territories will have Next Generation 911 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, and that’s where Congress can play a critical enabling role, by committing to funding nationwide implementation of NG911, just as it did five years ago when it funded the deployment of the nationwide broadband data network for first responders.

Currently, the money collected in the form of wireless 911 surcharges only covers a portion of the cost of providing 911 service in most jurisdictions—the rest comes from other taxpayer-provided sources. The problem is that the current level of 911 funding in most places is barely enough to provide the current level of service—the idea of migrating to next-generation technology simply is out of the question given the upfront transition cost.

Next Generation 911 and First Net: One Without the Other Simply Does Not Work

A case can be made that the implementation of NG911 needs to occur in lockstep with the build-out of the nationwide broadband data network for first responders, as one without the other simply does not work. The latter is being implemented so that rich data—such as streaming video and still images— can be transmitted to and from emergency responders at an incident or while en route. Such bandwidth-intensive data would choke a narrowband network. Because the nation’s 911 centers largely will be the entities doing the transmitting, they also need broadband-enabled technology in place—and that means NG911.

But video and images are just the beginning of the NG911 experience. As mentioned above, this technology will enable the rerouting of emergency calls to another 911 center when a natural or manmade disaster has rendered a 911 center inoperable, inaccessible or uninhabitable, and will enable 911 centers to share emergency call data with each other. NG911 systems will do all of this automatically and in real-time—something that cannot be accomplished with legacy 911 systems. Further, NG911 systems will enable text-based communications between emergency callers and 911 centers when making a voice call would be unsafe, such as in the event of a home invasion or active-shooter incident. Yet another example of NG911 functionality addresses concerns long held by the deaf and hard-of-hearing community regarding the ability to access 911 services directly.  This technology not only will enable direct access, but also will further the 911 center’s ability to conference in a sign-language interpreter through video relay.

Clearly, the nation’s 911 centers need NG911 now. And what NG911 needs right now is for Congress to become its champion and make implementation a national priority. Admittedly, it won’t be easy for Congress to find the money. But that’s exactly what was said more than a decade ago about the nationwide broadband network for first responders. And as Congress ultimately proved, where there is a will, there is a way. Let’s hope that history repeats itself.

Nancy Pollock is a senior consultant for Mission Critical Partners, Inc., a public safety communications consulting firm headquartered in Port Matilda, Pennsylvania. She can be reached at nancypollock@missioncritical.3twenty9.net.

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