Forming the Public Safety Next Generation 9-1-1 Coalition

Looking back at 2020, one of the bright spots for APCO was joining with other leading public safety associations to advocate for legislation that would establish a significant one-time federal grant program to achieve Next Generation 9‑1‑1 (NG9‑1‑1) nationwide.

Following months of collaboration between various public safety associations and congressional staff, the Next Generation 9-1-1 Act of 2019 (H.R. 2760; S. 1479), was introduced in May 2019. The bill would authorize $12 billion in federal funding to help state and local governments deploy NG9-1-1, preserve state and local control, modernize definitions of key terms such as NG9-1-1, interoperability, and Emergency Communications Center (ECC), and place conditions on grant recipients to achieve interoperability, prevent 9‑1‑1 fee diversion, and have a sustainable funding mechanism in place for ongoing operational needs. The introduction of this bill was a great starting point for building momentum in Congress and raising awareness of the need for significant federal support to update 9‑1‑1 systems across the country.

After the bill was introduced, APCO joined with national public safety organizations representing fire/rescue, emergency medical service, and law enforcement professionals to establish a formal coalition for ongoing advocacy known as the Public Safety Next Generation 9-1-1 Coalition. This cross-section of public safety will be more effective than any one group alone at building support in Congress, and the broad participation helps to convey the fact that NG9‑1‑1 upgrades will benefit all areas of public safety.

The Coalition is committed to advancing legislation to enable a nationwide upgrade to NG9‑1‑1 that is interoperable, competitive, innovative, and secure. The member organizations united behind legislative principles that will address the needs and concerns of public safety. For example, NG9‑1‑1 should be technologically and competitively neutral, and use commonly accepted standards that do not lead to proprietary solutions that hamper interoperability, make mutual aid between agencies less effective, limit choices, or increase costs. With principles like this in mind, the Coalition developed several additional measures to make the legislation more impactful, including increasing the level of funding, establishing a public safety advisory board, creating additional measures on cybersecurity, and bolstering the interoperability provisions.

The Coalition is advocating for federal grant funding in the amount of $15 billion. Achieving NG9‑1‑1 uniformly throughout the United States will require a significant influx of federal funding, particularly in light of the anticipated budget shortfalls as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. To assist with the development of grant program requirements, a new Public Safety Advisory Board would be established with representatives from 9‑1‑1 and other public safety disciplines. Among other things, the board would provide a variety of recommendations regarding the importance of deploying NG9‑1‑1 in both rural and urban areas, ensuring flexibility for technology improvements, and the value of enabling effective coordination among government entities.

Part of the advocacy effort entails promoting a common vision that achieving NG9‑1‑1 will result in true interoperability and multimedia capabilities across the emergency communications ecosystem. ECCs still have interoperability problems when it comes to transferring voice calls to other ECCs, even when both centers have deployed Emergency Services IP Networks. And NG9‑1‑1 should go beyond voice-only calls and enable ECCs to receive, process, and analyze all types of 9‑1‑1 requests for emergency assistance and share relevant information with other ECCs and emergency responders.

A joint public safety effort like this has not been undertaken since the Public Safety Alliance (which included many of the same organizations as the new Coalition) came together nearly a decade ago and successfully lobbied Congress to pass the law that created FirstNet, established a $115M 9‑1‑1 grant program, and provided hundreds of millions of dollars for public safety communications research. As 2021 begins, APCO and its Coalition partners will continue to make NG9‑1‑1 a legislative priority and press for a similar success.

You can contact APCO’s Government Relations Office with any feedback by emailing [email protected]

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.

Project 43: Broadband Implications for the PSAP

Leverage Existing Technologies and Prepare for Evolving Broadband Communications

The goal of Project 43 is to help public safety telecommunicators, PSAPs, PSAP directors, 9-1-1 authorities, elected and appointed officials, and others in the public safety community better leverage existing technology capabilities and prepare for the evolving broadband communications technologies that will impact PSAP operations and, at the same time, improve support to field responders.

This report is the outgrowth of the work of nearly 80 member practitioners assisted by APCO professional staff arrayed across several working groups focused on the following major topical areas: operations, governance, cybersecurity, technology, training, and workforce. Each working group consisted of experienced public safety and industry professionals who met regularly over the course of a year.

VoIP and SIP Trunking

What is VoIP?

VoIP calls can be made on the internet using a VoIP service provider and standard computer audio systems. Alternatively, some service providers support VoIP through ordinary telephones that use special adapters to connect to a home computer network.

How Does It Work?

A VoIP telephone is connected to either a computer or a modem which provides connectivity to the internet.  The user experience is virtually the same when you place or receive a call. You dial just like any other telephone, but your voice is digitized and put into small individual groups of data called packets. These packets of data go over the internet much like email and arrive at their destination where they are reconstituted into voice signals for the listener.

This service can be delivered by a variety of providers including phone companies, cable companies, and virtually any organization offering services as an internet service provider. One interesting thing to note is that the packets do not always travel together.  However, VoIP technology allows for them to arrive together, based on routing, and complete a call as if you were using the telephones of today.

Static vs. Nomadic VoIP

Static VoIP is when a computer or VoIP telephone service is not movable. The service is provided by a cable company, for example, where the telephone does not leave the residence. Nomadic is usually a VoIP phone installed in a portable computer which can be taken with the subscriber. Calls can be made from anywhere in the world there is no need for a “hard wired” phone line, only an internet connection.

Public Safety Challenges of VoIP Services

Traditional phone services associate a particular phone number with a fixed address. Portable interconnected VoIP services enable consumers to take their home or business phone service almost anywhere. Certain VoIP services can be used from internet connection so the location of the caller cannot automatically be determined.

This raises a number of challenges for the emergency services community. Those listed on the FCC’s VoIP and 911 Service page include:

  • VoIP 911 calls may not connect to the 911 call center serving your current location or may improperly ring to the administrative line of the 911 call center, which may not be staffed after hours or by trained 911 operators.
  • VoIP 911 calls may correctly connect to the 911 call center but not automatically transmit the caller’s phone number and/or location information.
  • VoIP customers may need to provide location or other information to their VoIP providers, and update this information each time they change locations for their VoIP 911 service to function properly.
  • VoIP service may not work during a power outage or when the internet connection fails or becomes overloaded.

The FCC has taken action to make sure that emergency calls from these VoIP services will get through to the appropriate public safety authorities. The FCC requires that providers of interconnected VoIP telephone services using the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) meet Enhanced 911 (E911) obligations. E911 systems automatically provide emergency service personnel with a 911 caller’s call-back number and, in most cases, location information.

Federal Report Estimates Extent of Interoperability Challenges for 9-1-1

This won’t come as news to anyone working in public safety communications, but 9-1-1 faces significant interoperability challenges.  While ECCs are generally able to transfer basic voice 9-1-1 calls to neighboring ECCs, they often cannot share other types of communications and data important for emergency response.

What might be surprising is that ECCs face these interoperability challenges even in areas that are making progress deploying Next Generation 9-1-1 technologies.  Perhaps that is why there has been increased attention to solving interoperability for 9-1-1 in recent years.  As consumers, we take for granted that two people can communicate with all kinds of data, regardless of where they live, which companies provide the connectivity, the types of phones they’re using, or even whether one person is on a phone while the other is using a tablet.  You would think that modernizing 9-1-1 technology would result in similar benefits, but that’s not proving to be the case.  Now, a federal report helps to quantify the extent of interoperability problems in 9-1-1.

At APCO’s suggestion, the Federal Communications Commission directed the Communications Security, Reliability, and Interoperability Council (CSRIC) VII to survey the current state of interoperability for the nation’s 9-1-1 systems.  CSRIC’s mission is to provide recommendations to the Commission on a variety of topics.  On March 17, CSRIC adopted a “Report on the Current State of Interoperability in the Nation’s 911 Systems.”  You can download the report on the CSRIC webpage.

The report describes the degree to which ECCs are able to share voice 9-1-1 calls, location data, SMS text-to-911, CAD data, and other types of data with other ECCs and (where appropriate) with emergency response providers.  It relied on publicly available data, as well as responses to surveys distributed by APCO and the National Association of State 9-1-1 Administrators.  APCO’s Chief Technology Officer served on the working group that developed the report.

This graphic from the report tells the story.  Red and orange are bad – they represent zero or limited interoperability between ECCs for each type of communication/data.  Green and blue are good – they represent interoperability statewide and interstate.  There’s a lot more red and orange here than blue and green.  In fact, unless you’re talking about the ability to transfer voice calls, ECCs are more likely than not to have an interoperability problem.  That shouldn’t be the case.

ECCs should be able to receive location information with every transferred 9-1-1 call.  They should be able to transfer texts to 9-1-1, CAD data, and other useful data relevant to an incident.  The red and orange in this graphic represent obstacles to emergency response for public safety telecommunicators, police officers, EMTs, and firefighters.  An already difficult job becomes harder.

What’s standing in the way of interoperability for 9-1-1?  Proprietary technology.  No doubt that the public safety communications community has benefited from some technology providers, including a number of newcomers, who are truly driven to introduce new innovations and make a difference.  But we need to accept the reality that interoperability is a problem and work toward a solution.

One of APCO’s strategies has been to provide a Sample RFP Template for NG9-1-1 Capabilities to assist 9-1-1 directors and authorities with their procurement activities, whether for a statewide or local effort.  The RFP Template covers all aspects of a complete NG9-1-1 deployment, regardless of the stage any state or locality is in concerning the transition to NG9-1-1.  It offers recommendations, guidance, and specific operational requirements toward achieving several goals:

  • Achieving interoperability among NG9-1-1 systems regardless of technology or jurisdiction;
  • Promoting competitive and innovative solutions;
  • Enabling the most cost-effective and operationally efficient solutions; and
  • Ensuring these solutions include more than just an upgrade from analog based voice-only systems to true IP-based, multimedia capable systems and architectures.

Another strategy has been to advocate for federal funding to support the transition to NG9-1-1 nationwide, with requirements on funding recipients to achieve and maintain interoperability.  This approach aligns with legislation that was introduced last year in the House and Senate that would create a $12 billion grant program for NG9-1-1.  It’s worth noting that the definition of interoperability used in that legislation is identical to the definition in the CSRIC report.

Thanks to the FCC’s willingness to examine interoperability for 9-1-1 and the work of CSRIC’s members, we’re in a better position to solve this problem.  APCO will continue working with policymakers at the Commission and Congress and pursuing every opportunity to ensure that ECCs can seamlessly exchange 9-1-1 calls and related data with other ECCs and on to responders in the field, regardless of jurisdictional boundaries, service provider, or other factors.

 

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.

2020 Legislative Priorities

By Jeff Cohen

We just started a new year, but there are only a few months left to achieve a number of public safety legislative objectives before Congress enters into election mode.

Click on the topics listed below to read background info and talking points for raising these matters, especially if you have plans to visit with your representatives in Washington, DC, or perhaps during a local meeting or ECC visit. APCO will continue to push for progress on these important public safety matters, but elected officials need to hear from their constituents, too. You can always reach us by email for updates or to discuss any of these issues: [email protected].

 

Reclassification as 'Protective Service Occupations'

APCO has long been championing a needed change to the federal government’s Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) system, which is managed by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The SOC is used by federal agencies to categorize occupations across the U.S. for statistical purposes, and its classification of 9-1-1 professionals is completely wrong. OMB must correct the SOC to reclassify public safety telecommunicators (PSTs) from the “Office and Administrative Support” category to the “Protective Service” category.

In my experience, this is one of the most logical and straightforward asks we could ever make. The SOC is supposed to classify occupations by the work performed. PSTs protect and save lives every day. The SOC’s Protective Service category is very broad – including law enforcement officers, lifeguards, casino gambling monitors, playground monitors, and parking enforcement officers (aka – “meter maids”). Reclassifying PSTs into the Protective Service category is entirely appropriate and would lead to more accurate data for federal agencies that utilize the SOC. Yet OMB staff have refused to fix the classification. For some reason, they’re unfazed by how wrong it is to consider the work performed by PSTs as similar to the clerical work of secretaries and taxicab dispatchers.

We have been successful in having legislation, the 9-1-1 SAVES Act, introduced in Congress that would require OMB to fix its mistake. We have strong bipartisan support, but we should continue to add more cosponsors. If you haven’t already done so, or not yet asked everyone you know, Contact your U.S. Rep/Senator.

It is also important to press key Members who control the 9-1-1 SAVES Act’s progress through the required committees:

Outside of Congress, there remains the option of getting the attention of OMB or the President himself. OMB has complete discretion to correct its own error any time it wants. Contact OMB.

We will continue to try to make inroads with all of these key actors in finally getting 9-1-1 professionals the recognition and respect they deserve by reclassifying PSTs into the SOC”s “Protective Service” category.

Talking Points

  • The federal government’s classification of 9-1-1 professionals as clerical workers is wrong and fails to recognize the lifesaving work performed by our nation’s 9-1-1 call-takers and dispatchers (collectively known as Public Safety Telecommunicators).
  • Congress can fix this by passing the 9-1-1 SAVES Act, which would direct the Office of Management and Budget to update the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC), a vast catalog of occupations relied upon by federal agencies for statistical purposes.
  • The current version of the SOC categorizes Public Safety Telecommunicators as administrative/clerical in nature, in the same group for secretaries, office clerks, and taxicab dispatchers, which is inaccurate and a disservice to the lifesaving work and dedication of 9-1-1 professionals.
  • Public Safety Telecommunicators should be categorized as Protective Service Occupations, which includes a broad range of occupations: lifeguards, gambling surveillance officers, fish and game wardens, parking enforcement workers, firefighters, and playground monitors, among others.
  • Occupations are supposed to be classified according to the nature of the work performed. Every day, Public Safety Telecommunicators provide lifesaving emergency medical instruction, deal with suicidal persons, assess scene safety for arriving responders, and play a critical role for active shooter incidents and a variety of other emergencies.
  • The 9-1-1 SAVES Act would correct the federal classification by appropriately grouping Public Safety Telecommunicators with other “protective” occupations. As a result, federal statistical activities would be more accurate.
  • Reclassifying these professionals as Protective Service Occupations has broad support from the 9-1-1 community and others familiar with the lifesaving work of Public Safety Telecommunicators, and bipartisan support in the House (H.R. 1629: 113 cosponsors) and Senate (S. 1015: 25 cosponsors).
  • This is a simple, zero-cost solution that would have no direct impact on salaries or benefits.
  • Reclassification is common sense, and about getting Public Safety Telecommunicators the recognition they deserve for the work they do every day to protect and save the lives of the public and first responders.

If you get any tough questions or even opposition, please let us know. So far there has not been a question or concern that we don’t have a strong rebuttal to.

Next Generation 9-1-1

While many areas are making progress, APCO has been concerned that the lack of desperately needed funding, combined with the lack of interoperability and multimedia capabilities in early “next gen” deployments, has made progress towards NG9-1-1 slow and uncertain.

Last year, APCO collaborated with other public safety groups to formulate legislation that would establish a significant one-time federal grant program to achieve Next Generation 9-1-1 nationwide.

The Next Generation 9-1-1 Act of 2019 is bipartisan in the House. An identical version has been introduced in the Senate. It’s an excellent bill that would:

  • Preserve state and local control of 9-1-1 and responsibility for ongoing funding;
  • Establish a $12 billion federal grant program (the cost came from a federal study);
  • Provide a modern, comprehensive definition of NG9-1-1 that would lead to a complete, end-to-end capability for 9-1-1 emergency communications centers (ECCs) to receive, process, analyze, and share all forms of communications including multimedia;
  • Require interoperability, to ensure that ECCs can share all incident data with other ECCs and responders in the field, regardless of vendor, equipment, jurisdictional boundaries, etc.; and
  • Require states to develop a sustainable funding mechanism so that ECCs continue to have the resources needed for operations, maintenance, and upgrades once the federal grant program expires.

Talking Points

  • The communications technologies available to the general public significantly outpace what is available to 9-1-1. As a result, consumer expectations concerning the capabilities of the nation’s 9-1-1 systems are far from reality.
  • Congress should pass the Next Generation 9-1-1 Act of 2019 (H.R. 2760; S. 1479), which provides funding and accomplishes several other important goals for NG9-1-1.
  • Federal funding is needed to quickly and efficiently modernize ECCs across the country for the benefit of public safety and national security, and to have the U.S. serve as a model for the rest of the world. At the same time, the Act would preserve state and local control over 9-1-1 operations, as well as responsibility for ongoing costs.
  • The Act’s comprehensive definition of NG9-1-1 will lead to a complete solution and uniform experience throughout the country.
  • A requirement for interoperability is essential to effective and efficient emergency response and will help drive innovative, competitive, and cost-effective solutions.
  • 9-1-1 is among the nation’s most critical infrastructure. Congress should consider standalone funding sources (such as spectrum auction revenue) and include NG9-1-1 funding in any major infrastructure package.
T-Band (470-512 MHz)

Spectrum known as the “T-Band” is used in a number of metropolitan areas to support critical public safety communications and provide regional interoperability among first responders. Current federal law mandates that the FCC begin a process to relocate public safety users and auction the T-Band for commercial use by February 2021. This provision of law was enacted as part of the 2012 legislation that created FirstNet. While at the time it may have been expected that public safety would have other options for mission critical radio communications, that has not turned out to be the case.

There are identical bills in the House and Senate that would change the law so public safety can keep using the T-Band. Public safety should not have to make any “trades” or other concessions because, according to a federal study, moving current users off the T-Band would actually cost much more than the potential value of the spectrum for commercial use.

Talking Points

  • 9-1-1, law enforcement, fire, and EMS agencies depend on spectrum known as the T-Band in a number of major metropolitan areas to meet their mission-critical communications needs.
  • Congress should pass the Don’t Break Up the T-Band Act (S. 2748; H.R. 451) to repeal an existing law that would require public safety to vacate this spectrum. Public safety agencies operating in the T-Band would be left with few if any viable alternatives.
  • A federal study showed that the cost of relocating current T-Band users would be much greater than the potential revenue from auctioning the spectrum. Thus, letting public safety keep the T-Band would have no impact on the federal budget.
  • Spectrum is not a luxury for public safety, but rather a necessary tool to carry out their mission to save and protect lives. Public safety should not have to make any concessions.
9-1-1 Fee Diversion

States that assess 9-1-1 fees on phone bills should spend this revenue on 9-1-1. Unfortunately, some states persistently raid these funds for other purposes. This practice not only harms 9-1-1 professionals, many of whom already struggle with insufficient funding and staffing, but is deceptive and unfair to those who pay these fees. Pursuant to federal law, the FCC annually reports on the collection and use of 9-1-1 fees, which mostly has the purpose of “naming and shaming” states that engage in 9-1-1 fee diversion. This has resulted in at least some diverter states changing their ways.

There have been some efforts in Congress to help prevent 9-1-1 fee diversion. However, there does not yet seem to be an effective solution to the problem. The best approach so far has been to prevent diverter states from being eligible for federal 9-1-1 grants. Absent any real “pain” (such as loss of major grant funding) there is little chance that states will put an end to this very unfortunate practice.

Talking Points

  • States that divert 9-1-1 fees for other purposes do a disservice to 9-1-1 professionals and the citizens they serve.
  • A significant federal grant program, such as the Next Generation 9-1-1 Act of 2019, that would disqualify states that divert 9-1-1 fees, could be very helpful for ending 9-1-1 fee diversion.
  • Ending fee diversion is important but is not a solution for meeting the funding needs of states and localities to make a full transition to Next Generation 9-1-1 because the funding needed for NG9-1-1 far exceeds the amount of fees being diverted.
  • Ultimately, the focus should be on ensuring 9-1-1 has the funding it needs, whatever the source of that funding.
6 GHz Microwave Band

Public safety heavily uses and relies upon the 6 GHz band for fixed point-to-point microwave links essential to public safety services. The Wi-Fi (unlicensed spectrum) industry has made a strong push at the FCC to require public safety and other incumbents to share their 6 GHz spectrum. The FCC has proposed to allow sharing, and would to some extent require a new frequency sharing technology to attempt to prevent interference to public safety users. The problem is whether the sharing technology would apply to all new sharing of the spectrum and whether the technology can be proven in advance to truly prevent interference and detect and eliminate any sources of interference that occur. APCO has weighed in to express significant concern with the FCC’s proposal.

While this proposal remains pending at the FCC, this issue has also gotten the interest of Congress. No legislation has been introduced yet, but it’s possible that Congress would take action before the FCC.

Talking Points

  • Public safety makes heavy use of the 6 GHz band to support critical 9-1-1 dispatch and first responder radio communications.
  • Outside of the prospect of using the federal 7 GHz band, public safety has no other spectrum options to satisfy these communications needs.
  • If the 6 GHz band is opened for sharing, the spectrum sharing technology must be proven to work before putting it to use with hundreds of millions of unlicensed devices that could cause interference to public safety communications.
  • There is no turning back once unlicensed devices are permitted to share this spectrum – if interference occurs that cannot be immediately addressed, there will be irreparable adverse consequences to emergency communications and response.

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.

What Does Interoperable Mean in the Real World?

By Steve Leese

In the field of public safety, interoperability has several specific meanings that apply to the tools used in our profession.  For instance, fire apparatus hose fittings are commonly standardized so that departments from different jurisdictions can provide mutual aid effectively.  Merriam Webster defines interoperability as the “ability of a system to work with or use the parts or equipment of another system.”  This article will focus primarily on communication tools such as land mobile radio (LMR) and computer aided dispatch (CAD) in addition to illustrating the overall need for an interoperability-based approach to any communications technologies intended for use by public safety.

Emergency incidents can occur anywhere, and do not respect jurisdictional borders.  When this happens, responders from more than one agency have to respond and work together.  Agencies set themselves up for failure and put lives at risk when interoperability is not carefully considered and built into the purchase and implementation of equipment and programs they utilize to communicate, both with the public and with other agencies.

Providing a few real-world examples of problems that public safety faces today may help illustrate how vitally important interoperability is.  The following examples are drawn from a career that has spanned over thirty years as a first responder and a director of two Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs).

When I was a law enforcement officer, our jurisdiction, like many across the country, was bordered on three sides by another jurisdiction that had a disparate LMR system.  Some LMR systems in the United States are typically referred to as proprietary, meaning that they do not talk to systems of a different brand or frequency range.  Our jurisdiction had such a system, as did those that bordered and responded with us.  During an incident that required multi-jurisdictional response, our only solution was to partner with another patrol vehicle from the neighboring agency and manually relay the necessary information over the air to the disparate system.  This occurred frequently and had the undesirable side effects of taking two scarce patrol units away from the primary task of responding to the incident.  In addition, because communications were relayed, it was easy to miss important information.  This costs time and efficiency and it can put both the responders and the public at risk.

Serving as a communications director, my centers faced a similar challenge to the previous example.  What made it different, was that the officers in the jurisdictions that commonly worked together across a jurisdictional border personally purchased commercial cellphones with a push to talk feature.  While this allowed them to communicate with each other, their solution had many shortcomings: they did not connect to our recording system in the PSAP; they were not monitored so if the responders were using personal phones instead of department radios to communicate emergency information, the communications center would not know about the emergency traffic; and the handsets were not mission critical.  While this solution was problematic at best, the fact that responders tolerated these shortcomings illustrates the level of frustration public safety experiences with the inability to seamlessly connect.

My final case in point is again derived from my time as a communications director.  Because public safety responder jurisdictions sometime overlap PSAP boundaries it became necessary to implement a CAD to CAD solution to dispatch fire department incidents.  When the agencies developed the plan everything seemed simple because both PSAPs purchased CAD from the same vendor, and had the same version running on the same type of equipment.  Imagine our surprise when the vendor required both PSAPs to purchase very expensive interfaces for our CADs to exchange information.  Of course, there were also expensive maintenance contracts for the interfaces every year after we made the purchases.  Ultimately the only options were to pay the price, or spend literally millions of dollars to change vendors.

These examples are not unique.  Every day public safety officials and responders deal with similar issues, and it strains the operations and puts lives in danger.  Less important, but significant, are the burdensome costs associated with connecting disparate systems.  When consumers are faced with an unexpected or undesirable cost, they turn to a competitor.  Public safety agencies don’t have that luxury.  They are typically locked into contracts that package multiple services with proprietary solutions, making a change to a competitor a major expense.

These technology challenges seemed difficult to overcome years ago, but today it is common to see inexpensive commercially available devices that can transfer multimedia seamlessly to disparate devices on different platforms.  If this technology and capability is in the hands of the consumer today, why can’t public safety benefit in a similar way?

The vision for seamless interoperability that I’m trying to explain is described in the APCO P43 report on “Broadband Implications for the PSAP” in the following way:

Fully interoperable voice and data communications allow the units who arrive first on scene to provide up to date, real-time information to additional units responding to the scene regardless of which agency they are from. PSAPs, though they have different CAD and radio systems, can communicate and receive common updates via interoperable, standardized CAD interfaces.

Pushback to this vision demonstrates how entrenched we are in the sometimes regressive traditional thinking.  Approaches that worked in the past will no longer work today.  Engaging the public safety community to help define the problem and providing innovative solutions is essential.  Public safety was not somehow put in this precarious position overnight.  These concerns are not new, and have been real-life concerns for several decades.  Entire careers have started and ended with the attitude that this problem is too large to ever overcome.

While FirstNet offers promise on the responder communications front, and solutions are being deployed to address much of what has been problematic, challenges still remain for the full emergency communications ecosystem, including LMR and 9-1-1 systems.  APCO, with the help of the US Department of Homeland Security and industry partners, will continue to work to fix interoperability problems for LMR.  However, it is critical that we take the same approach to Next Generation 9-1-1 and ensure that it includes requirements for interoperability at all levels.[1]  From the ability of the public to send multimedia communications to PSAPs, to the ability of PSAPs to process and share that data with each other – regardless of vendor, equipment, and jurisdiction – we cannot afford to ignore the importance of interoperability in this realm.  Working together, the public safety community, technology designers, manufacturers, network and service providers, and fellow standards development organizations can assure that both citizens and responders are made safer by addressing this important concern.   As our industry moves toward Next Generation 9-1-1 and IP based systems and services, now is the time to learn from the past and move forward in a positive direction.  Anything less is a disservice to our profession and the public we serve.

[1] APCO President Martha Carter recently authored a member message with an update on efforts to achieve fully interoperable NG9-1-1, including questions to consider asking of NG9-1-1 equipment and service providers.

 

Steve began work with APCO International in 2013, and served as the Director of Communications Center and 9-1-1 Services until 2020.  Steve has worked in public safety for 34 years as a Telecommunicator and Police Officer in Dearborn, MI, Emergency Management Director, and 9-1-1 Director in Huron and Eaton County MI.  Steve is a University of Michigan graduate, a Marine Corps veteran having served as a Military Police Sergeant, and Presidential Guard at the White House.  Steve is a former President of the Michigan Communication Directors Association.

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.

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.