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
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 reportthat “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.