Cybereye | 911 system in need of help

Cybereye columnist
William Jackson


THE NATION'S EMERGENCY telephone systems have worked so well for about 40 years that 911 long ago entered the national parlance as shorthand for an emergency call. But many Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) using 911 systems have become outdated.

'It is almost shocking how far behind they are in terms of the technology,' said Guy Clinch, director of industry solutions for state and local government at Avaya.

Many of the 3,000-plus PSAPs still rely primarily on the wired public-switched telephone network as their primary communications channel. There have been upgrades since 911 was established as the nation's emergency phone number in the 1960s ' Enhanced 911 now provides information on the location of wired phone callers, helping to ensure a timely response. When cell phones became ubiquitous, the Federal Communications Commission told carriers to develop technology to route emergency calls and give PSAPs accurate location information.

But before many agencies had a chance to upgrade their systems for cellular 911, a welter of new digital IP communications arrived, and they are replacing traditional public-switched telephone networks in many cases.

By some estimates, as many as 30 percent of young adults rely entirely on cell phones. And text messaging is the preferred means of keeping in touch for an entire generation.

Coincidentally, experience has shown that text might be the most effective way to communicate when phone circuits are overwhelmed during an emergency.

But few PSAPs are equipped to use the tools many of us take for granted. The technology is there: Avaya recently announced availability of a Public Safety Communications Solution that bundles many of the services already available to commercial call centers and tailors them for public safety needs. Using IP telephony, facilities can be linked into virtual call centers to handle calls more efficiently. The system supports multimedia communications and can link phone systems with older radio systems.

The problem is money. Networking multiple locations, sharing resources and taking advantage of new media gives state and local agencies better value for their IT investments, Clinch said. However, state and local governments often do not have the luxury of making long-term investments. They face budget constraints, and if the money is not appropriated, it doesn't matter how good a deal is.

With the collapse of the housing market, skyrocketing energy prices, a faltering economy and stiff competition for increasingly scarce tax dollars, upgrading public safety systems that have worked for 40 years is not likely to be a high priority with state legislatures.

In the face of these realities, the federal government will have to assume much of the responsibility for funding such programs.

To their credit, the Federal Communications Commission and Commerce Department are promoting development and adoption of next-generation 911 technology, and $1 billion is available in the department's Public Safety Interoperability Communications Grant Program.

But that program will not ensure nationwide advanced capability, and a lot more education is needed to make state and local officials aware of the grants.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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