Achieving the True Promise of Next Generation 9-1-1

9-1-1 is part of America’s critical infrastructure, but it profoundly lags behind in technology. Public safety communications professionals across the country deserve to have the best tools available to protect and save lives.  Next Generation 9-1-1 promises to deliver many benefits, including putting 9-1-1 on par with technology used in the commercial sector, which for today means seamlessly exchanging texts, photos, videos, multimedia, and other data.  What will it take to finally make good on this promise and achieve fully deployed NG 9-1-1 service throughout the United States?

We Need to Work from a Comprehensive Definition of NG 9-1-1

Some states and localities are making progress towards NG 9-1-1 by replacing legacy networks with IP-based connectivity, referred to as ESInets or Emergency Services IP Networks. To be fully deployed, NG 9-1-1 has to mean an end-to-end, all-IP network that includes not only the connectivity afforded by ESInets but also the equipment and services needed to enable every 9-1-1 Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) to process new forms of data.  To illustrate, this means when a member of the public can send a multimedia message such as a photo or video to a PSAP that in turn is capable of receiving, analyzing, and forwarding this information to a field responder to render an emergency response.  This is not yet possible anywhere in the country.

Defining NG 9-1-1 in this comprehensive manner will best ensure that all stakeholders work in unison to effectively implement NG 9-1-1 across the United States. This includes innovators, technology companies, federal, state and local government officials, and 9-1-1 professionals.  It also helps better identify the need and urgency to modernize 9-1-1 particularly for elected officials, and mitigate confusion on the part of the general public, whose expectations about the capabilities of 9-1-1 are increasingly far from reality.

APCO has suggested a comprehensive definition to the FCC for use in its annual reports on 9-1-1 fee diversion, and the definition will be refined for APCO’s upcoming report on Broadband Implications for the PSAP (to be released at our annual conference this August).

The True Promise of NG 9-1-1: Interoperability and Innovation

The real opportunity for NG 9-1-1 goes beyond end-to-end connectivity for advanced, multimedia communications. Seamless interoperability will improve emergency response operations and expand the market so that public safety benefits from the competition and innovation enjoyed in the commercial sector.  “Seamless interoperability” means avoiding expensive integrations or specialized interfaces for every NG 9-1-1 use case:

  1. PSAP-to-PSAP: seamless hand-off of calls such as for transfers, overloads, or mutual aid.
  2. ESInet-to-ESInet: seamless exchange of data between connecting networks, including across state boundaries, to facilitate mutual aid, disaster recovery, or data sharing.
  3. ESInet-to-origination networks: naturally, we need a seamless way for the public and other sources of data (including smart city, Internet of Things, and intelligent highway networks) to flow into NG 9-1-1 networks.
  4. NG 9-1-1-to-FirstNet: similarly, one network cannot fully function without the other, and a seamless interface to exchange data between these two vitally important public safety networks is a must.

While it’d be natural to expect seamless interoperability given the value to public safety’s mission, we are concerned that NG 9-1-1 deployments are on course to lack interoperability, at least without costly after-the-fact integrations. Failing to realize the true promise of NG 9-1-1 would be a great disservice to 9-1-1 professionals and the communities they serve.

In the commercial sector, we take interoperability for granted. For example, consumers can freely exchange multimedia content and data with each other, regardless of device, manufacturer, operating system, software, service provider, etc.  This is because the consumer marketplace uses commercial standards – such as those created by the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) (including IP-Multimedia Subsystem, IMS), the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) – and because the market generally demands it.  NG 9-1-1 can and must benefit from these same commercial standards and expectations.

In addition to commercial standards, there are a number of complementary efforts underway by the public safety community and industry to improve interoperability and flexibility for NG 9-1-1. For example, earlier this year APCO and NENA received final approval from the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) for an American National Standard that identifies standard specifications for the exchange of NG 9-1-1 emergency data between disparate manufacturers’ systems (Computer Aided Dispatch, Record Management Systems, etc.) located within one or more public safety agencies.  Standards are also in progress to address NG 9-1-1 network architecture.  ATIS, the ANSI-accredited standards development organization partnered with 3GPP, has produced a standard for implementation of an IMS-based NG 9-1-1 service architecture.  Also, NENA plans to make the next version of its “i3” architectural vision for NG 9-1-1 an ANSI standard.

Standards are critical, but we also need a mechanism to ensure that NG 9-1-1 systems achieve interoperability for the use cases above, both when they’re deployed and on an ongoing basis. This may require action by Congress, as explained below.  In the meantime, for those states and jurisdictions that have deployed, or are seeking to deploy, ESInets or other NG 9-1-1 elements, we recommend you ask the following questions of your existing or prospective vendors:

  • Can you guarantee that our ESInet and other IP-based equipment will be seamlessly interoperable with other ESInets and equipment, including across state boundaries?
  • Can you guarantee that our ESInet will be seamlessly interoperable with origination networks? With FirstNet?
  • If a solution complies with a particular standard, how have you ensured that your implementation of the standard aligns with others in the industry to achieve interoperability?
  • Will you guarantee your solution to be interoperable without additional upgrades and new costs to the PSAP?

What We Can Learn and Apply from the FirstNet Legislation

With the right vision in mind for NG 9-1-1, a look at the problems that the FirstNet legislation aimed to solve for first responder communications can help set the path for NG 9-1-1.

Many of the challenges facing 9-1-1 are similar to those encountered with public safety land mobile radio communications:

  • Networks, services, and equipment are costly, siloed, and proprietary.
  • The vendor community is specialized and small.
  • 9-1-1 authorities have little bargaining power and few options.
  • Interoperability is difficult and expensive to achieve, especially after-the-fact. (As explained above, this is becoming a growing concern for pre-NG 9-1-1 deployments.)
  • Innovation is limited and disconnected from advances in the consumer marketplace.
  • Upgrades are disruptive.
  • Consumer/user expectations are far removed from reality.

In addressing the communications needs of first responders, Congress sought to leverage the opportunities afforded by the innovation, experience, expertise, infrastructure, and breadth of the commercial marketplace. In particular, by defining and requiring use of “commercial standards” in all network components, the FirstNet legislation is achieving the following for the nationwide public safety broadband network:

  • Substantially expanded range of companies producing innovative solutions;
  • Seamless interoperability and data sharing without the need for additional interfaces or costly integration; and
  • Significant economies of scale.

We must accomplish the same outcomes for NG 9-1-1.

Where Do We Go from Here?

When Next Generation 9-1-1 and FirstNet are fully deployed throughout the country, the PSAP’s role as the nerve center of a broader emergency response ecosystem will be even more critical than it is today: receiving data and multimedia content from the public and exchanging broadband-rich content with field responders via a dedicated wireless public safety broadband network. Fortunately, there have been some promising developments for NG 9-1-1 of late.

Looking at NG 9-1-1 and FirstNet as the two main pillars of the nation’s future emergency response capabilities, we start to see a path forward. The 9-1-1 community may not have the bargaining power, on its own, to match the economies of scale and innovation prevalent in the commercial marketplace and ensure needed interoperability for NG 9-1-1.  Accordingly, and similar to how the FirstNet legislation achieved these goals for first responder communications, the opportunity exists for Congress to provide strong incentives for NG 9-1-1 implementation to use commercial standards and achieve full interoperability.  For example, Congress can help ensure use of commercial standards and ongoing interoperability as conditions of federal grants, through certifications by grant recipients, and with oversight by the 9-1-1 Office.

Thus, full NG 9-1-1 deployment requires a significant federal grant program for a one-time capital expenditure to upgrade 9-1-1 networks, equipment, and PSAPs AND to create the mechanism needed to ensure interoperability and position PSAPs to stay on par with commercial technology.

In February, Senators Bill Nelson (FL) and Amy Klobuchar (MN) released a discussion draft of federal legislation that would advance NG 9-1-1.  This draft bill addresses critical needs for the 9-1-1 community, and aligns with priorities APCO has long advocated for accomplishing a full transition to NG 9-1-1.  For the reasons discussed above, APCO is especially supportive of provisions recognizing the need for standards and resources to support PSAPs while appropriately reserving governance and control to states and localities.  The Communications and Technology Subcommittee in the House of Representatives also recently held an informative hearing entitled “Realizing Nationwide Next Generation 9-1-1,” during which several Representatives expressed interest in connectivity between PSAPs and interoperability with broader networks such as the Internet of Things.

These expressions of interest in NG 9-1-1 in both the Senate and House are a welcome sign. A modernized 9-1-1 system is a national public safety and homeland security priority, and APCO looks forward to continued work on the draft bill and other initiatives with members of Congress.