A look inside the future of 911 services

Alabama has launched a statewide program to implement Next Generation 911 service, which will move all 911 voice calls for the state’s 115 public service answering points to an IP network during the next 18 months and also open the door for the full use of mobile data services.

“We’re laying the groundwork to enable the delivery of text messages, full-motion video and photos using all IP technology” to emergency call centers, said Ray Paddock, vice president of emergency products and business development for inetwork, a provider of NG911 services.

But even with an IP network in place, fully unified communications still is down the road for most public service answering points, which will have to upgrade their equipment to take advantage of it. While waiting for unified communications, Alabama dispatchers expect to benefit in the near term from improved reliability for traditional voice calls, said Roger Wilson, chairman of the state’s Wireless 911 Board.

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“There are additional features available today for our dispatchers” that they cannot take advantage of while using the state’s current antiquated copper network, said Wilson, who also is director of the 911 answering point for Alabama’s Walker County.

Combining voice, video, text and data on a single emergency communications platform is the ultimate goal of Next Generation 911. This will let users of mobile wireless devices use the services they are accustomed to on their smart phones and other devices when making emergency calls, as well as provide additional information to first responders.

System shortcomings

About 70 percent of Alabama’s 911 calls are made from wireless phones, complicating the job of routing them to the proper answering point accurately locating the caller. The Federal Communications Commission requires wireless carriers to provide location information to dispatchers, but the accuracy of this information varies depending on the technology used, so each carrier also sends information about the reliability and confidence of the location along with the call.

“With a wireless call today we don’t get the reliability and confidence information” because that data is stripped out on the copper network, Wilson said. Without it, dispatchers do not know if the location they receive is accurate to within a few feet or a few hundred yards.

Another shortcoming of the current system is that calls cannot automatically be transferred between answering points if one is unavailable or if the call is sent to the wrong location. With a centrally routed IP network, rules can be set to automatically transfer calls and associated data when one answering point is unavailable or swamped.

Alabama has 88 Emergency Communications Districts and 115 Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs). When the Alabama Next Gen (ANGEN) project is completed, it will be one of the country’s first statewide NG911 networks.

The state has a history of leadership in 911 services, laying claim to the nation’s first 911 call in 1968. According to various accounts, when AT&T announced the designation of 911 as a universal emergency number in January of that year, along with plans to implement the first 911 system in Indiana, Alabama Telephone Co. President Bob Gallagher was miffed that Ma Bell had ignored the independent phone companies and decided to build his own system first.

It was quickly built in the town of Haleyville and on February 16, 1968, Alabama House Speaker Rankin Fite dialed 911 from the Haleyville mayor’s office and U.S. Rep. Tom Bevill answered the call on a red phone at the police department. Two weeks later, AT&T implemented its first 911 system in Huntington, Ind., the home town of Rep. J. Edward Roush, who had sponsored the legislation that adopted the three-digit emergency number.

More than 40 years later, Alabama’s circuit-switched, copper-wire system was struggling to keep up with telecom advances that included wireless mobile phones and voice over IP. The state applied for 911 improvement grants in 2009 under a $40 million program through the Transportation and Commerce departments. Cost of the envisioned IP system was estimated at $460,000 for two routers and about $1.4 million to build out last-mile connections to each of the 115 answering points—at $12,522 each—for a total cost of $1.9 million.

The IP backbone would be supplied by the Alabama Supercomputer Authority, which runs the Alabama Research and Education Network (AREN), which serves many of the state’s schools and municipalities.

The state received $950,000 in matching federal grants and committed another $950,000 of its own money, largely from a fund established originally to improve wireless 911 capabilities. Inetwork, which provides managed NG911 call routing and networking, was selected by the Wireless 911 Board in 2011 for the project.

The state’s current 911 system routes wireline and wireless calls through seven routers around the state provided by CenturyLink and AT&T. The Next Gen system will be centralized, with all calls routed through redundant routers housed in the supercomputer authority’s facilities in Huntsville and Montgomery. From there they will be routed over the AREN network to the proper answering point, depending on the location of the caller.

Determining location for a fixed, wireline phone is simple. For wireless calls, initial information for determining which answering point a call should be routed to is provided by the cell and cell segment handling the call, which can identify the jurisdiction the call is coming from.

As the call is routed to the dispatcher, more granular information is added to help responders locate the caller. The accuracy of that information depends on the technology used by the carrier. If the carrier relies solely on triangulation of cell locations within its network, results can by iffy. But most carriers use assisted GPS, at least for their smart phones, which provides more accurate information.

“With assisted GPS you are pretty much going to get a good location, unless it’s inside a building,” Wilson said.

IP network advantages

NG911 will not necessarily provide more accurate location data, but on an IP network dispatchers will know how reliable the data is and can ask for additional information from the caller if needed and if possible.

Another advantage of an IP NG911 network is the ability to use TDD (Telecommunications Device for the Deaf) more conveniently. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 911 answering points already must be able to accommodate calls from these devices, which are teleprinters for text communication over a Public Switched Telephone Network.

In a standard system today, when the TDD pulse is received the call is sent to a separate display module in the console that enables two-way text communication. With NG911, this data canautomatically  be displayed in a browser window along with other data, eliminating the need for a separate device.

Alabama kicked off work on ANGEN in June. The initial contract with inetwork is for three years, and the conversion is expected to take about 18 months.

The first phase will be to move wireless traffic to the new system. The four major national carriers, Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, along with four regional carriers, are expected to have their traffic handled by the new routers in Huntsville and Montgomery by November 1. Initially, calls then will be routed to the districts through the seven current routers over the existing system. As PSAPs are connected to the IP backbone and are equipped with IP switches, calls will be sent to them directly from the new routers.

Current plans call for delivery of calls over IP beginning in 2013, and for picking up wireline carriers for the new system beginning in 2014. Paddock says he expects the wireline carriers will be eager to begin moving to the new system before then, and if the transition goes smoothly Alabama could have as much as 90 percent of its 911 traffic on ANGEN as early as 2013.

Unlike current propriety 911 systems, a statewide, standards-based system could easily be extended to other stakeholders as needed, such as hospitals and other service providers not normally integrated into 911, as well as interconnect with other states and regions.

“Ultimately, we will be able to put in a coast-to-coast IP-based system,” Paddock said.

How soon NG911 systems will be able to take full advantage of unified communications depends on industry and the speed at which PSAPs will be able to upgrade equipment. The FCC is putting the onus on wireless service providers to provide the capability, and Wilson said he expects it to be widely available to answering points within the next two years.

Upgrading answering points with the necessary equipment depends on state and local budget constraints, which could slow the process. Here again, a standardized IP system could ease the way. Wilson said a number of vendors are now testing hosted 911 systems with inetwork to assure interoperability, and he expects them to start offering hosted PSAP services in Alabama soon. This could provide a low-cost path to upgrades, allowing PSAPs to pay for seats as needed with no up-front capital costs for equipment.

Due diligence by local government will be required to ensure the reliability and security of hosted services.

“I don’t see a downside” to hosted 911 services, Wilson said, “as long as it’s done right.”


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