APCO International’s Public Safety Communications Priorities for the New Year

By Jeff Cohen

The following is a list of our advocacy priorities for the coming year. Despite much progress and several wins that APCO members should be proud of since we announced our 2021 legislative and regulatory priorities, there is still significant work to be done for public safety communications. Click each topic to learn about recent developments and where things stand.

Legislative Priorities

1. Secure major federal funding to implement Next Generation 9-1-1 nationwide.

The nation’s 9-1-1 networks are in dire need of modernization. 9-1-1 is largely based on 50+ year-old technology and thus limited to voice calls and some basic texting capabilities. Implementing modern technology would save lives. We need to deploy Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1) throughout the country in a comprehensive, secure, innovative, competitive, cost-effective, and interoperable manner. This would enable 9-1-1 centers to receive and process voice, text, and multimedia content and share it with other 9-1-1 centers or with first responders in the field. While some states and jurisdictions are making partial progress toward NG9-1-1, no part of the country can be described as having achieved this vision of NG9-1-1 with end-to-end broadband communications for emergency communications centers (ECCs).

The Public Safety Next Generation 9-1-1 Coalition (which includes APCO), is a group of national public safety associations representing 9-1-1, fire, law enforcement, and EMS. The Coalition estimates that $15 billion is needed to fully achieve NG9-1-1 nationwide, and our associations developed language for an NG9-1-1 grant program that has been included in several legislative proposals. Other associations, including NASNA, NENA, and iCERT have expressed support for these proposals.

In 2021, the House passed the Build Back Better Act – which included the majority of the Coalition’s proposal. The main difference is that the funding level was far short of the proposed $15 billion. The Coalition has cautioned that under-funding the grant program will jeopardize the legislation’s goals and could result in “haves” and “have-nots” across the country. At the time of this writing, the House version of the Build Back Better Act is unlikely to pass, and both the House and the Senate are working on revising the legislation.

As Congress considers changes to the Build Back Better Act and other legislative packages, APCO will continue working with the Coalition to advocate for inclusion of the NG9-1-1 provisions (which have bipartisan support).

2. Fix the federal classification of Public Safety Telecommunicators.

The federal government’s catalog of occupations, the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC), categorizes 9-1-1 public safety telecommunicators (PSTs) as an administrative/clerical occupation, but there is a much more appropriate “protective” category. The SOC is supposed to group occupations by the nature of the work performed. 9-1-1 professionals save and protect lives every day. Therefore, instead of being considered clerical personnel, they should be with the ”Protective Service Occupations” – a broad group that includes playground monitors, parking enforcement workers, and several other occupations that arguably perform work that is less “protective” than PSTs.

The easiest path to make this fix is for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which controls the SOC, to simply correct the SOC by reclassifying PSTs into the protective service category. This would come at no cost, promote good government by ensuring that the SOC is accurate, and align the SOC with other federal data efforts, including congressionally-mandated suicide tracking programs that group PSTs with other public safety professionals. APCO has been working to fix the classification since 2014, but so far OMB has opted to maintain the status quo.

As an alternative to OMB voluntarily changing the classification, legislation could direct OMB to fix the SOC. The 9-1-1 SAVES Act (HR 2351/S 1175) would do just that. While not having any direct impact on salaries, benefits, or state-level job classifications, this is a common-sense change that would signal the Administration’s recognition of the life-saving work performed by PSTs.

In 2021, APCO worked with members of Congress to get the 9-1-1 SAVES Act reintroduced in both the House and the Senate with bipartisan support. Near the end of 2021, the reclassification language was included in the U.S. House of Representatives version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2022, but unfortunately the House and Senate moved forward with a slimmed down version of the NDAA that did not include the reclassification provision.

APCO will continue to vigorously pursue passage of the 9-1-1 SAVES Act. Adding to the already-strong bipartisan support is important for creating pressure on congressional leadership to pass the bill. If you haven’t already done so, you can send a letter to your representatives in Congress asking them to support the 9-1-1 SAVES Act here.

3. Fund health and wellness programs for 9-1-1 professionals.

Health and wellness is a huge challenge in 9-1-1, both physically and mentally. Research has shown that the stress of working in emergency communications dramatically increases the risk of suicidal thinking. In fact, one 2019 study found that one in seven 9-1-1 professionals had experienced suicidal thinking in the 12 months prior to the study. That’s comparable to rates for fire/rescue and more than four times the rate in the general population.

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, people experiencing mental health issues or suicidal thinking might not be seeking the help they need. There is growing attention in public safety to the need to eliminate the stigma around mental health and wellness, but dealing with this serious challenge to our community will require significant efforts, including raising awareness, creating guidance for mental health professionals, and supporting resources like peer support programs.

In 2021, APCO worked closely with Congresswoman Robin Kelly’s office to develop legislation that would provide support for 9-1-1 professionals. The bipartisan PROTECT 9-1-1 Act (HR 4319) includes several measures to advance health and wellness for 9-1-1 professionals, including: establishing a system for tracking PST suicides; developing best practices to identify, prevent, and treat posttraumatic stress disorder in PSTs; developing resources to help mental health professionals better treat these personnel; and establishing grants for health and wellness programs in ECCs.

The introduction of the PROTECT 9-1-1 Act is an important acknowledgement of the stressful, lifesaving nature of the work performed by PSTs and a helpful step toward addressing the critical need for support. APCO is working to build support for the PROTECT 9-1-1 Act in the House and to get a companion bill introduced in the Senate, both of which are essential for getting the bill passed into law.

FCC Regulatory Priorities

1. Improve location accuracy for wireless calls to 9-1-1.

9-1-1 professionals require actionable location information for 9-1-1 calls, and obtaining an accurate location is especially challenging for calls made indoors. Ideally, ECCs would know the caller’s “dispatchable location,” meaning the street address, plus (if applicable) the floor level and apartment/suite number.

The FCC’s rules impose several requirements on wireless carriers to provide location information for 9-1-1 calls made indoors. One of these requirements is to provide information about the vertical position of a caller through either dispatchable location or a “z-axis” location estimate expressed as a “Height Above Ellipsoid (HAE).” HAE is a height measurement that’s different from height above ground or sea level.

APCO has consistently expressed a strong preference for dispatchable location information. Setting aside the issue of whether the estimate is accurate, for HAE to be used by ECCs, specialized software and 3D maps have to be developed – a technically challenging, time-consuming, and costly undertaking that places more responsibility on ECCs with an uncertain payoff.

Unfortunately, the carriers favored an approach focused on z-axis information and largely abandoned efforts toward dispatchable location. This could be because modern smartphones provide z-axis estimates, and if they’re accurate enough, the carriers could piggyback on those capabilities to comply with the FCC’s rules. However, when the first deadline for providing accurate z-axis information came in April 2021, the carriers were unable to comply because the z-axis information wasn’t accurate enough. In response, the FCC fined the carriers and adopted several measures for increased oversight. Wireless carriers were also required to start providing any available z-axis information for 9-1-1 calls, even if the information failed to comply with the FCC’s accuracy requirements and regardless of whether ECCs are able to use the information.

In April 2022, the carriers face a second chance for complying with the vertical location benchmark they missed in 2021. And a separate FCC rule, effective January 6, 2022, required the carriers to begin providing dispatchable location for 9-1-1 calls when feasible – a standard that has yet to be clearly defined. These benchmarks are important developments that present an opportunity to press the carriers for meaningful improvements. ECCs will play an essential role in evaluating real-world 9-1-1 location and reporting concerns that carriers are failing to meet their obligations.

APCO will continue to push the FCC to adopt stricter rules and to hold the carriers accountable for improving location information. Among other things, we’d like to see a clear requirement that a certain percentage of indoor calls are delivered with a dispatchable location and an expectation that carriers will leverage a variety of technologies, such as “5G Home” offerings, to deliver the best possible location information for 9-1-1 calls.

2. Protect public safety users of the 6 GHz band from harmful interference.

Public safety agencies throughout the country make extensive use of the 6 GHz spectrum band for emergency dispatching, first responder radio communications, and connectivity with other jurisdictions. In 2020, despite significant technical debate and public safety concerns, the FCC changed the 6 GHz rules to expand unlicensed (ex – Wi-Fi) use of the band, effectively permitting hundreds of millions of potentially interfering new devices to share this band. These devices are not licensed, and thus not easily trackable, and are expected to be just as ubiquitous as the Wi-Fi routers presently found throughout homes and businesses.

APCO didn’t fundamentally oppose spectrum sharing as a concept, but reasonably asked the FCC to 1) ensure that real-world tests are conducted to inform the rules and measures for preventing/mitigating interference, and 2) require mechanisms to rapidly detect, identify, and eliminate any interference. Unfortunately, the FCC declined to implement our requests and, after exhausting all other remedies at the FCC, APCO sued the FCC in federal court. APCO took this extraordinary measure due to concerns that interference from these new devices will cause irreversible harm. Several other parties – representing utilities, telecom, and broadcast industries – sued the FCC as well, but APCO was the sole party representing public safety.

Throughout 2021, APCO and the other parties suing the FCC engaged in arguments at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Unfortunately, given the legal rule to grant federal agencies like the FCC significant deference, the court ultimately sided with the FCC. This does not mean that the court determined that there wouldn’t be interference or the FCC should have taken better steps to protect public safety communications. 

In parallel to the court case, the FCC continued to move forward with its new 6 GHz framework. Some “low power” Wi-Fi devices were approved and have entered the stream of commerce already, and the FCC is working through a process to permit “standard power” devices that will operate under the control of soon-to-be-established Automated Frequency Coordination systems (AFC). Even before the court case was decided, APCO joined with other parties to urge the FCC to pause and revisit the rules governing the 6 GHz band through a pending petition for rulemaking and request for stay. One of the important factors the FCC must address is that real-world testing has demonstrated that the FCC’s assumptions were wrong and that interference is much more likely to occur than we originally feared. APCO will remain in contact with public safety users of the spectrum and continue urging the FCC to act before there’s harm to public safety.

3. Revise the rules for the 4.9 GHz band to enhance public safety use.

The 4.9 GHz band has long been dedicated to public safety and is uniquely suited to serve public safety’s needs for local broadband communications – Wi-Fi hot spots, fixed point-to-point connections, robot control, or bandwidth-intensive applications like high-resolution streaming video. But while the need is there, public safety hasn’t been able to make the most of this band because equipment costs are high, there are inadequate protections against interference, and the marketplace for devices is uncompetitive and sparse.

For many years, APCO, among other public safety groups, has been asking the FCC to make reasonable rule changes to enable public safety to make increased use of this band. Under previous leadership, the FCC adopted rules that effectively handed the band over to the states for commercial leasing and removed any guarantees of interference-free and priority use of the spectrum by public safety. In a win for public safety last year (after substantial pushback from APCO and others), the FCC’s new leadership reversed the earlier rule change and granted APCO’s petition to reconsider the rules and chart a new course for the band.

The FCC sought input on how to expand public safety use of the band while exploring options to spur innovation, improve coordination, and drive down costs. We’re in the midst of reviewing this input and will engage with the FCC and other public safety stakeholders to find a path forward to optimize this spectrum for public safety users. Ultimately, we need rules that improve public safety use of the 4.9 GHz band. This might entail some type of spectrum sharing framework so long as we ensure that any non-public safety use does not interfere with public safety’s use of the band, which may require the development of new tools to ensure public safety users have priority and preemption over other users. 

4. Improve the information provided to ECCs during network outages.

When network outages impact the ability of service providers to deliver 9-1-1 calls, ECCs need timely information about the scope, nature, and anticipated duration of the outage in order to take action to protect their communities, such as advising the public to use a 10-digit number if 9-1-1 is unavailable. There are some basic regulatory requirements for notifications, but it’s all too common that ECCs receive unhelpful information or don’t get notified at all. Furthermore, when ECCs detect outages on their own they need to know how to immediately contact the relevant service provider. 37,000 outages were reported in 2020, but we have no idea how many more went unreported because they didn’t meet the FCC’s high reporting thresholds.

For years, APCO has been asking the FCC to make improvements to the timeliness, format, and content of outage notifications so that they provide actionable information for ECCs. Additionally, we’ve asked the FCC to hold the wireless carriers to their prior commitment to develop and maintain a secure, two-way contact database that would make it easier for carriers and ECCs to contact each other about known or suspected outages.

In April 2021, consistent with APCO’s advocacy, the FCC proposed new rules on outage reporting and inquired about changes to the reporting thresholds that trigger an outage notification to an ECC. As APCO also suggested, the FCC sought comment from the carriers on their ability to provide graphical information about outages, such as maps of the affected areas, and establish a contact database. In response to these proposals, APCO asked the FCC to require the service providers to provide more information about the outages they experience, including how many go unreported and the average amount of time for restoration. This information would be useful in determining whether and how the FCC’s outage reporting thresholds should be altered to keep ECCs informed without an overload of unhelpful notifications.

The FCC seems convinced that action is needed. (Indeed, the FCC issued record-breaking fines on service providers last year for failing to comply with the existing outage reporting requirements.) We will continue evaluating the options for improving outage information and work with the FCC to develop rules for timely, actionable outage notifications.

Improving outage reporting has also been the subject of legislative activity. Before the FCC proposed updating its rules, as described above, APCO helped develop legislation that would direct the FCC to conduct such a rulemaking. Even with the FCC’s recent action, the Emergency Reporting Act (HR 1250/S 390) would be helpful for ensuring the FCC makes many of the changes we’ve requested. The bill passed in the House last year and has bipartisan support in the Senate. Passage of the law would make it easier to achieve a favorable outcome in the FCC proceedings.

These advocacy priorities are not the only issues for us in 2022. APCO will work with the FCC and Capitol Hill on several additional issues important to public safety, including, for example, improvements to Wireless Emergency Alerts, protecting ECCs from unwanted robocalls, legislative proposals for alternative dispatch programs, and enhancing cybersecurity for ECCs.

Our goal is to do what is best for public safety, and we rely heavily on input from our members. We encourage you to contact [email protected] to share your thoughts and experiences on these topics or any issues important to your ECC.


About the TabletopX Blog

A “Tabletop Exercise,” often shortened as “TTX,” is a discussion-based exercise frequently used by emergency planners. Led by a facilitator using a planned scenario, TTX participants describe the actions they would take, and the processes and procedures they would follow. The facilitator notes the players’ contributions and ensures that exercise objectives are met. Following the exercise, the facilitator typically develops an after-action report and conducts a debrief discussion during which players and observers have an opportunity to share their thoughts, observations, and recommendations from the exercise without assigning fault or blame.

Many of the attributes of a TTX are the same we seek to promote in the discussion generated from our blog posts. The goal is to capitalize on the shared experiences and expertise of all the participants to identify best practices, as well as areas for improvement, and thus achieve as successful a response to an emergency as possible.

TabletopX blog posts are written by APCO’s Government Relations team and special guests.