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But the 911 system that undergirds America’s emergency responders is a mish-mash of incompatible, often outdated systems and fragmented local jurisdictions.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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