What exactly is next-generation 911? When people talk about it, they use the phrase like a noun, yet it’s not a person and it’s not a place. You may consider it a “thing,” although I can tell you that it most certainly is not, at least in the physical sense.
NG911 is not something you can buy and plug into your existing public safety network, miraculously transforming a legacy environment into a “next generation” environment. And yet, it’s often described that way.
Personally, I believe NG911 is best described as a true “solution.” It’s comprised of several components, each with a specific Functional Element that provides what the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) describes as a functional framework that provides definitive services that work in harmony. By themselves, any one of these components itself is not “next-generation 911.”
The current state
Across the country, dispatchers work around the clock in more than 6,100 emergency contact centers, also known as public-safety answering points, or PSAPs. The underlying technology that powers public-safety answering points was created in the era of landline voice, and is truly optimized for people who call 911 from a traditional telephone.
Today, the great majority of 911 calls are mobile, but most public-safety answering points aren’t designed to effectively handle mobile—if you’ve ever called 911 from your smartphone, invariably the first question you’ll be asked is, “What’s the location of your emergency?”
Some 10 percent of 911 centers (so far) have adopted text-to-911: technology that promises the ability for people to send photos, video and text their emergency responder, optionally share their GPS coordinates and get relevant information delivered back to them via text.
The reality is far more modest: Most text-to-911 rollouts are bolted onto legacy infrastructures, hobbling their future capabilities. Most just allow back-and-forth text—no location, no direct multimedia.
Nearly every week, new headlines tout that a public-safety answering point somewhere has “upgraded to NG911 technology” by adding text-to-911 technology. Adding new technology to an old infrastructure doesn’t magically make it a next-generation solution.
A good litmus test that can be applied to establish an agency’s level of NG911 readiness is to analyze how the agency defines NG911. If it’s using NG911 as a noun, there’s likely to be a disjointed understanding of the base premise behind the technology and architecture.
“We’ve implemented an NG911 PSAP solution,” the agency’s IT manager might tell a journalist, and there the cycle of misunderstanding begins.
The industry is doing a great disservice to the public by allowing these misconceptions to endure, as they lead citizens to believe they have something they do not.
The future state of 911
A true NG911 solution means dispatchers can receive voice, video, text, email and other forms of multimedia on a SIP-enabled infrastructure. NG911 is designed to accept PIDF-LO data in the call setup header that can contain other relevant contextual information. To truly describe an upgraded environment as next-generation 911, an Emergency Services IP Network containing required i3 Functional Elements (as defined by NENA) must be built and deployed, replacing the legacy E911 network.
Agencies may argue their system is “NG911-ready,” “NG911-capable” or some other derivative, but in reality, those phrases are semantics being used as a technical loophole. Most people simply don’t understand the subtle nuances of those terms: People hear “next-generation 911” and equate that to being better, more capable and something they should spend money on.
When a network outage invariably occurs, the public is left to wonder, “What happened to that shiny new next-generation thing that was featured on the news and cost all that money?”
As text-to-911 is increasingly deployed across the country, the term “next-generation 911” will continue to crop up in the news. We need true NG911 services, delivered over a real Emergency Services IP network. If we accept anything less, we’re shortchanging ourselves and the public of a life-saving technology that’s available, but not deployed.
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Mark J. Fletcher, ENP is the Chief Architect for Worldwide Public Safety Solutions at Avaya. As a seasoned professional with nearly 30 years of service, he directs the strategic roadmap for Next Generation Emergency Services in both the Enterprise and Government portfolios at Avaya. In 2014, Fletcher was made a member of the NENA Institute Board in the US, in 2014 – 2015 he served as co-chair of the EENA NG112 Committee in the European Union, providing valuable insight to State and Federal legislators globally driving forward both innovation and compliance.