FirstNet and NG911: Pushing in the Same Direction

FirstNet and NG911: Pushing in the Same Direction

FirstNet and Next Generation 911

Get ready for emergency call services to move into the modern era.

The first-responder community has taken two major steps so far in 2016: First, the national FirstNet program began soliciting formal proposals in January for a comprehensive, nationwide broadband network to support the nation’s first responders. Then in February, three first-responder advocacy groups joined together and, for the first time, set 2020 as a national deadline for Next Generation 911 (NG9-1-1) adoption.

The two moves will redefine the way police, fire and emergency medical services interact with each other and with citizens.

The twin announcements are the culmination of years of effort. Timing now is driven by four factors:

  • Huge advancements in telecommunications technology, especially mobile
  • The 9/11 Commission (the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States) mandate to improve first-responder emergency communications
  • The desire for better location information for emergency calls to improve response
  • A tsunami of multimedia data from mobile phones, surveillance cameras and other sources

Yet the road ahead is pitted with challenges. Though Congress provided national support for FirstNet and local governments are clamoring to upgrade their emergency call systems, some state governments are lagging behind, leaving a critical gap between these two complementary systems.

Specific challenges include:

  • A legacy of independent 911 systems that were formed as local entities because of technological limitations at the time they were built
  • Uneven funding and strategies across the states
  • Outmoded existing equipment nearing the end of its useful life
  • Finalizing standards

‘Natural Partnership’
When it comes to emergency communications, NG9-1-1 and FirstNet form “a natural partnership,” in the words of The National Public Safety Telecommunications Council. “Both NG9-1-1 and FirstNet share the same goal of improving communications during emergencies through a nationwide [Internet protocol]-based architecture.”

NG9-1-1 will provide first responders with location information and multimedia data from mobile 911 callers. The existing wired system cannot support those features.

Meanwhile, first responders will receive mission-critical voice and data communications from dispatchers over FirstNet’s high-speed 4G mobile network.

“Right now we are limited in what we can push out to [first responders] in the field because of bandwidth,” says Steve Souder, director of the Fairfax County, Va., 911 program. FirstNet will solve that problem and allow dispatchers to share data collected using NG9-1-1 with “those who actually respond to the emergency.”

Both are ambitious projects that should substantially improve first-response performance. Both have enthusiastic support from the first-responder community. But to date, each has developed on its own separate track.

NG9-1-1 implementation began in earnest in 2000, when cell phone use was rising and ordinary citizens suddenly found they could transmit more data in more forms than public safety networks could deliver to first responders. Implementation has continued in fragmented and uneven form ever since, with some states and communities pushing ahead and others holding back (see GTW’s Fragmented 911 Networks Put Drag on Next-Generation Upgrades).

FirstNet, by contrast, is federally funded through a $7 billion appropriation, along with up to $135 million in grants to states, territories and the District of Columbia. It is centrally managed by an independent government authority called the First Responder Network Authority with a congressional mandate to help drive the process forward. Yet it, too, must ultimately be approved by the states.

FirstNet received its initial impetus from the 9/11 Commission, which recommended in its summary report that “Congress should support pending legislation which provides for the expedited and increased assignment of radio spectrum for public safety purposes.” That recommendation was passed into law as part of the 2012 Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act.

“FirstNet and NG9-1-1 are joined at the hip in some ways, but the models for their creation could not have been more different,” says Trey Forgety, director of governmental affairs for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). “FirstNet had its origins when public safety organizations and agencies went to the federal government and said: ‘We need this one thing.’”

Responding to a single, very specific need already sanctioned by the 9/11 Commission was a relatively easy issue for Congress to address at the Federal level. By contrast, Forgety points out, “The 911 agencies did their work at the state and local level and now they’re rolling out networks and systems that need assistance.”

FirstNet’s RFP, NG9-1-1’s Goal
After a year of study and consultation, FirstNet issued its request for proposals (RFP) on Jan. 13, with the objective of creating a Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network. The winning contractor must provide “a comprehensive solution” including all “personnel, materials, services, facilities, management and other resources necessary,” and will sign a single, indefinite-delivery-indefinite-quantity contract with fixed-price payments.

Since issuing the RFP, FirstNet has taken questions from interested parties.

The 2020 deadline set for NG9-1-1 implementation does not have that FirstNet’s contracting muscle or force of law. Rather, it is a goal set by the NG9-1-1 NOW Coalition, a newly-formed alliance of public safety groups: NENA, the National Association of State 911 Administrators and the Industry Council for Emergency Response Technologies, and supported by the NG9-1-1 Institute, among others.

The coalition’s goal: “By the end of the year 2020, all 911 systems and centers in all 56 states and territories will have sufficiently funded, standards-based, end-to-end, IP-based 911 capabilities, and will have retired legacy 911 systems, without any degradation in service to the public.”

“It’s only logical to move NG9-1-1 out as quickly as possible,” says Brian Fontes, NENA’s chief executive officer, who says that NG911 is on track and that 2020 is a reachable goal that coincides with FirstNet’s goals. “We need to keep to the mantra of keeping NG9-1-1 going.”

Forgety agrees, calling the 2020 goal “aggressive but achievable.”

Roger Hixon, NENA’s technical issues director, says the momentum is powerful. “I don’t see anything that will cause people to pull away from it. The critical mass of support has been achieved and this is happening right now.”

With 70 to 80 percent of 911 calls coming from cell phones, Fontes says evolution to the next generation of 911 is a necessity. The public, he says, “cannot be served by continuing the legacy 911 system.”

The FirstNet program is actually adding momentum to the push for NG9-1-1 adoption, according to Laurie Flaherty, coordinator of the National 911 Program at the Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C.

“I would say in terms of [NG9-1-1] implementation, if you look at it, it would form a normal bell curve and we’re past the initial point,” says Flaherty. “There have been a number of early adopters. We’re going up the bell curve and we’re still on the upswing. There is certainly some sense of urgency about moving this forward.” With the advent of FirstNet, “we’re being pushed by both sides: one from the carriers [who want to upgrade their infrastructure] and now with FirstNet, we’re being pushed from the other side.”

Fortunately, the pushes are moving in the same direction – improving communications in nationwide emergency services.

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Fragmented 911 Networks Put Drag on Next-Generation Upgrades

Fragmented 911 Networks Put Drag on Next-Generation Upgrades

One of two 911 Call Centers in Collier County, Fla. Photo by David Silverberg

In emergency response, faster is always better and efficiency is always paramount.

But the 911 system that undergirds America’s emergency responders is a mish-mash of incompatible, often outdated systems and fragmented local jurisdictions. The combination makes an upgrade of the nation’s system with Next-Generation 911 (NG911) technology far more challenging in the years ahead.

“It has to do with how 911 grew up,” explains Laurie Flaherty, coordinator of the National 911 Program at the Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C.

“In the 1960s and ’70s, when this system was first set up … there was no way for any of the Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) to connect to each other,” Flaherty says. “It was just physically, technologically not possible.”

Today, there are some 5,899 primary and secondary PSAPs, or 911 call centers, according to the National Emergency Number Association, spread across the nation, each run by a separate political jurisdiction. Says Flaherty: “Up until very recently [they] have functioned as completely independent operations, because they had to.”

Now new technology allows PSAPs to share and interact as never before. But the lack of a cohesive future roadmap is frustrating efforts to upgrade systems nationwide. The Federal government is looking to the states, but most state governments leave NG911 upgrades to the checkerboard of local jurisdictions that manage 911 today.

The result: Upgrading the nation’s tangled 911 infrastructure is proving harder and moving more slowly, than if Federal or state leaders were more involved.

“The culture is not very collective – at least it has not been so until very recently,” Flaherty says. “With the advent of this digital IP-based infrastructure, all of a sudden, ideas like consistency, uniformity, collaboration and coordination become important in a way they never were before. The community worked together on a number of things previous to this, but certainly not to the extent that they do now.”

Clear data on the state of NG911 throughout the country is hard to find. When the National Highway Safety Administration surveyed the states in 2014, 16 states did not report any data at all. Exactly how much it will cost to upgrade the existing nationwide system is still anybody’s guess. The Federal Communications Commission launched a cost study in 2015, but a final report is not expected until 2017.

Nationwide, much if not most of NG911 activity takes place at the county and local level, eluding federal data collection.

Two counties – one in northern Virginia and one in Florida – illustrate the disparate paths local governments may take on the road to modernization.

Forging Ahead in Fairfax County, Va.
Spreading south and west of Washington, D.C., Fairfax County, Virginia, is among the nation’s richest counties. As part of the National Capital Region’s sovereign jurisdictions, it has the latest and best rescue equipment, procedures and practices, standing ready for any contingency from the personal to the catastrophic.

In 2015, the Fairfax County 911 program was named one of the nation’s 10 best 911 centers by 911DispatcherEDU.org, an independent educational website. Fairfax County 911 is aided by its critical location, the cooperative nature of its neighboring jurisdictions, its robust county funding and state and Federal grants from the Urban Area Security Initiative.

With more than 1.1 million people packed into just 407 square miles, about 400,000 calls to 911 are handled by Fairfax County each year. The numbers demonstrate the changing nature of emergency calls. In 2015, 81.4 percent of those calls came from cellular phones and 16.4 percent from landline phones. Though only 2.2 percent came from voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) phones, that figure is expected to increase.

The fact that most calls to 911 are now from cell phones is one of the biggest drivers behind NG911. Landlines are tied to specific street addresses. But cell phones by definition can be anywhere, and mobile callers may not be able to communicate their location to a 911 operator.

“The current 911 network does not allow for the transmission of geolocation coordinates from a mobile phone. This can result in the caller being transferred to the incorrect PSAP and simultaneously fails to provide accurate location information,” says Edward Naybor, vice president at General Dynamics Information Technology.

Keeping Up: Collier County, Fla.
If Fairfax County, Va., exemplifies a forward-looking, heavily invested and publicly supported modern system on the cusp of moving to NG911, Collier County, Fla., embodies what is more typical throughout much of the country, particularly the South.

More rural than Fairfax, Collier County 911 serves a third as many people in an area nearly six times as large. With about 340,000 people living in the county’s 2,305 square miles – 70 percent of which is protected parks, preserves and wildlife refuges – its two PSAPs received 167,000 calls to its 911 service in 2015. There were also 530,000 law enforcement calls and 52,000 fire and emergency medical calls. Of these, 14 percent were landline, 80 percent were cellular and 6 percent were voice over Internet. Collier was the first Florida county to integrate texting into its 911 system in June 2014 and logged 368 short message service (SMS) sessions last year.

Its 911 system is housed in a modern facility. The monitors and workstations are new and updated but in other ways, its emergency response system is behind the times: Some first responders here still use pagers.

Bob Finney, the technical manager overseeing Collier County’s 911 system, says technology is a priority for County Sheriff Kevin Rambosk. “[He] started as a dispatcher and he’s very communications- and technology-oriented,” Finney says. “He wants to be on the cutting edge of response.”

Under Rambosk, Collier County is upgrading and improving its emergency response capabilities. On January 26, it replaced its 17-year old dispatch system with a new computer-aided dispatch system that can deliver live updates from the 911 center and enhanced incident maps to first responders in their vehicles, providing insights like floor plans, details on hazardous materials, hydrant locations and shortest-distance routing. In August, the county’s 911 system will be linked to a separate PSAP serving the city of Naples, an independent jurisdiction within Collier County.

County communications managers would like to move to NG911 and hoping for Federal money. “Until the federal government comes up with money it will not happen in the state,” Finney says. “It’s frustrating.”

Florida has no overall strategy guiding NG911 implementation, leaving counties on their own. Many are banding together in regional groupings to coordinate and support their emergency response efforts. Collier County for example, joined with nine other counties along the western part of the state.

“We wanted to look to see how we could work together to provide common infrastructure,” Finney says. The 10 county 911 coordinators meet to discuss costs, maintenance and cooperation.

Similar regional groupings have developed to advance NG911 programs in southern Illinois and the state of Washington.

Facing the Future
On the national level, concern is growing about the state of emergency response systems.

“The public communications providers are trying to retire the old infrastructure,” Flaherty says. “More than one company has plans by 2020 to retire their old system in terms of how they deliver 911 calls. There’s some sense of urgency. But the challenges are not small in terms of the state and local governments moving forward.”

Wireless carriers want to proceed to NG911 and develop FirstNet. The FCC has also been working to advance the program. But progress has been slow. An FCC task force set up to settle on an optimal PSAP architecture for NG911 only recently completed its work.

“We’re seeing progress but not as fast we’d like to see it,” Flaherty says. “State and local governments are not flush, so finding the money to make the leap is difficult.”

An auction of spectrum planned by the FCC is expected to provide $115 million for NG911, but the auction will not take place for another year. A grant program will start taking applications around the same time.

Flaherty would like to see national-level efforts to at least sort out basic information: Amazingly, there is no centralized listing today of the nation’s PSAPs and their individual contact information.

Flaherty would also like to see more nationwide coordination: “If I had unlimited power to move this forward, one of the things I’d make happen is a discussion of what needs to be done at the national level – not necessarily at the federal level, the national level – in order to pull off a nationwide system.” A national effort would include every stakeholder: private companies, federal, state and local governments, non-profit organizations, think tanks and citizens.

“I have to believe that as much as the state and local governments are doing, if we’re going to achieve a seamless, nationwide system, there has to be some level of coordination at the national level,” she says.

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Navy Revising Training for the Sailor of the Future

Navy Revising Training for the Sailor of the Future

Readiness and a focus on the sailor will dominate Navy training and simulation for the future, Navy flag officers said earlier this month at the 2015 Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) in Orlando, Fla.

Rear Adm. Mike White, commander of the Naval Education and Training Command, began his remarks by referencing the Navy’s Sailor 2025 Initiative. The initiative, he said, allows the Navy to focus on a reasonable timeline for preparing for the next generation of sailors.

“Today’s second grader will be the sailor of 2025,” White said. “How will we provide engagement to that sailor?”

One answer, he said, is to get off what he called the escalator model of progressively more complex instruction and take a continuum approach, providing adaptive and changing learning. Instead of concentrating on training sailors to be proficient in a single specialty, as it has for generations, the Navy should also encourage a more diverse spectrum of study.

Another approach is to take advantage of mobile technology to bring experts to trainees, rather than the other way around. All of the military services are trying to find more efficient ways to deliver training where trainees are, rather than delivering trainees to conventional schoolhouses.

Rear. Adm. Mathias Winter, chief of naval research and director of Innovation, Technology Requirements and Test and Evaluation, noted that “one of the things that sometimes goes unnoticed is the warfighter performance.”

He’s focusing research attention on brain-based learning to develop greater understanding of skill development and comprehension, particularly the role of imitation. “We see and imitate,” Winter said. “Imitation is a form of learning.” The Navy now wants to develop that concept to create autonomous systems that can train naval personnel in any environment or condition.

He envisions using artificial intelligence (AI) to create digital tutors that can learn the characteristics of trainees and tailor training to the individual and craft personalized curricula.

“From a science perspective, think of a personal learning system that knows you better than you know yourself,” he said.

Also employing AI, the Navy is looking at the Intelligent Adaptive Computer-Generated Force, which uses to generate dynamic, fast-paced simulated scenarios. This allows analysts and commanders to “understand the what-ifs of warfighting,” testing different options and outcomes. “It is a force multiplier,” he said.

When it comes to teams, Augmented Immersive Team Training can simulate battlefield effects on combat teams. The Navy hopes to develop a blend of real and synthetic training using its year-old Fleet Integrated Synthetic Training/Testing Facility (FIST2FAC).

Undergirding all the technology and training initiatives will be naval acquisition, according to Rear. Adm. Dean Peters, commander of the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division and assistant commander for Research and Engineering at the Naval Air Systems Command.

Industry, said Peters, has a major role to play in working with the Navy, while commanders focus on readiness. At the same time it is taking a more active role in lead system integration and performing a greater share of the work of acquisitions in an effort to drive down costs.

“We’re getting away from multiple paths of risk,” he said, while still emphasizing industry’s critical role as a partner in Navy training and the service’s openness to industry feedback.

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Roundup: Military Services Adapting Approaches to Training

Roundup: Military Services Adapting Approaches to Training

The increasing complexity of the threat environment and adversaries’ ready access to technology is challenging U.S. training leaders, top-ranking officers said at the 2015 Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) in Orlando, Fla., last week.

“Our adversaries and potential adversaries have unprecedented access to technology,” Lt. Gen. Michael E. Williamson, military deputy director, director of Army Acquisition Corps, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, told the audience. “But our advantage is our training and readiness.”

Adversaries have access to leading technology and adapt quickly, the panelists agreed. So that means U.S. forces must also be able to adapt quickly to change. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. James W. Lukeman, commanding general of the Training and Education Command, said the Corps is focusing on small unit leadership training and collaboration, and is focusing on the need to develop training tools.

Air Force Maj. Gen. James N. Post III, director of current operations, Headquarters Air Force. Command and control, nuclear control, administration, logistics and other, similar functions can be exercised through simulations. But flying and combat still require live training – although with a simulated component.

Navy Vice Adm. Paul Grosklags, commander of the Naval Air Systems Command, the pace of training development and employment is too slow and needs to be accelerated to deal with the challenges, said the Navy had outsourced too much for the design and development of training to industry when it had the native expertise, direct experience and first-hand knowledge.

He said in the future the Navy will seek to exert a bigger role as lead systems integrator of its training systems, and insist on open architecture and standards so that it could respond more flexibly and quickly when needs changed.

More broadly, he said, the Navy has become too cautious in its training approaches. “We’ve become far too risk-averse,” he said. “We have to be able to accept risk.”

The Army’s training challenges are more complicated. The service acquired myriad systems in 14 years of wartime, and now must divest as it upgrades and develops a more integrated approach to training, Williams said.

Even so, he said, the Army is committed to robust scientific and technological innovation and research. “This is the one we protect as much as possible because it’s the ‘seed corn,’” said Williams.

Spanish Vice Adm. Javier Gonzaelz-Huix, deputy chief of staff Joint Force Trainer, NATO Headquarters, Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, offered a NATO perspective to the discussion, emphasizing interoperability and the ability to train as well as fight as a coalition.

Modeling and simulation is a key to making that happen and it is now a priority on NATO’s agenda at high echelons, he said. NATO must continue to develop its future modeling and simulation priorities. The organization is streamlining its processes for training and exercises while establishing a global approach to its training and it will continue its efforts to involve industry in the process.

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3 Keys to Better Military Training: What Leaders Want Most

3 Keys to Better Military Training: What Leaders Want Most

Open standards, improved cyber training and faster, more flexible training technologies topped the wish lists of military training chiefs at the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) last week in Orlando, Fla.

“We have to get to common standards to drive live, virtual, constructive (LVC) training,” said Vice Adm. Bill Moran, U.S. Navy deputy chief of operations for manpower, personnel, training and education. LVC blends live-action training with simulations, making it possible to conduct realistic training at a lower cost.

The Navy has more than 33,000 sailors and officers in training at any given time; it also brings in 40,000 new recruits a year, and sees about 40,000 members depart. “We only have 326,000 in the Navy,” Moran said. “Those ratios are awful for anyone running a business.”  While there are multiple causes, one of the biggest is “how congested and slow our training pipes are.”

Quickening the pace and reducing the cost of training is essential to enabling the service to afford the future weapon systems it will need in the future, he said. Senior leaders from the other military services, as well as from the Defense Department and NATO, agreed, and each pressed for a greater government role in setting standards to avoid getting locked into proprietary systems and architectures. They want more flexibility in design, increased emphasis in open artchitecture, and the ability to more rapidly adjust to changing needs on the fly.

“We’re not there yet,” Moran said.  “That is on us on the uniformed side. We have got to get together and get to common standards to drive the cost down.”

The military services have long wrestled with the need for common modeling and simulation standards, plus  the difficulty of achieving such standards was reflected in the senior leaders’ comments.

Frank DiGiovanni, director of force readiness and training in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for readiness, said he wants to see standards set at the software and driver level, not just at the hardware level with standardized USB connectors and the like. Spanish Vice Admiral Gonzalez-Huix, deputy chief of staff and joint force trainer for NATO, agreed. From his perspective, the critical need is for standards that will ensure coalition nations can train and interact with each other at all times.

Cyber Concerns

The emerging cyber battlefield will test all the services and allies, and was a consistent theme struck by DiGiovanni and leaders from all four military services over the course of the conference.

“The challenges of cyberspace are not inconsiderable,” Moran said. Close-quarter naval battles may be a thing of the past, but “if you look at electronic and cyber warfare, we will be face-to-face in that combat.” He warned that the next battle “may not be kinetic,” but electronic, and said the U.S. response so far has been too slow. “If we have that kind of pace we’ll never succeed,” he warned.

Adversaries are using new capabilities faster than the U.S.  can respond, said Vice Adm. Paul Grosklags, commander of the Naval Air Systems Command, and they are adapting quickly to new commercial tools. “Their training is very fast,” he said.

“Cyber is a huge issue,” agreed DiGiovanni. Not only is it a new, emerging domain of warfare, but it’s an area where a single individual can inflict significant harm, either seen or unseen. The military is still wrestling with how to develop cyber skills, he said, and needs “lightweight cyber training tools” that can be used to teach problem-solving skills, and not just step-by-step procedures.

Deployable Training Solutions

Across the board, DiGiovanni and Moran said, the military needs training that can be more easily deployed wherever troops may need it.

“A mobile, modular capability is essential,” said Moran. “Put these tools in the hands of young men and women and they can make a significant difference in ways we cannot imagine.”

The Navy has had success shortening training times by employing the Digital Tutor program for its information technology technicians, according to Moran. The Digital Tutor acts as a coach for sailors, teaching, monitoring and correcting them on a personal basis. The first class of 18 sailors to test the concept graduated in September, cutting from 37 to 27 weeks the time it took to teach that specialty.

“This whole notion of speeding up the rate of learning in our force starts with what we do here [at I/ITSEC],” said Moran. “It starts with designing capabilities to train differently and capturing the minds of young men and women who want to serve in our Navy and armed forces. It also is important because, collectively at DoD, if we can’t come together on a commonality on approach to training, it’s going to make it very, very difficult to be affordable.”

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