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In early August of 2019, a gunman opened fire on a crowded street in Dayton, Ohio. The results were tragic – three dozen people shot, nine whom died – but it could have been much worse. Police responded almost immediately, killing the shooter 32 seconds after the attack began.

Contrast that to 2018, when another gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. More than 15 students and teachers used cellphones to call 9-1-1 and report the attack, yet most of those calls bypassed the local call center in Parkland and were instead routed to a 9-1-1 call center in nearby Coral Springs. The mix-up delayed the arrival of first responders.

Call takers at 9-1-1 centers nationwide answer about 240 million calls a year, according to the National Emergency Number Association. In an emergency, how those calls are handled can be the difference between life and death. When every second counts, the ability of a 9-1-1 system to provide emergency responders with timely, accurate information is critical.

Both 9-1-1 call takers and first responders depend on the technology that undergirds emergency systems to quickly capture and transmit accurate data. Because of the way the existing 9-1-1 networks are built, it’s not actually possible to provide any in-band data (other than Caller ID) to a public safety agency. The framework required to transport anything other than audio with the call doesn’t exist in the legacy networks. Just as if you were to buy a high-definition color television and watch “I Love Lucy” reruns on it, the program would still be in black and white and low-def. The quality of the television and stream speed are irrelevant because high definition does not exist end to end. The same is true with Next Generation 9-1-1. Despite the digital content at the source and the ability to receive it at the public safety answering point (PSAP), the network pipeline is based on legacy E9-1-1 and is the lowest denominator.

"We have to be able to identify exactly where that call’s coming from.”

– County 9-1-1 dispatch director

State and local jurisdictions have sought to improve this pipeline of information flowing to first responders, yet many of them have encountered impediments to improving the overall reliability and capabilities of 9-1-1 services. Among the challenges are the high cost of technology upgrades, uncertain funding streams for improvements, poor interoperability, shifting regulatory requirements and a fast-changing technology landscape.

Not least of the challenges confronting 9-1-1 call centers, also known as PSAPs, is the incompatibility of old and new technology. The national 9-1-1 system was created in the 1960s – long before the widespread use of now-ubiquitous mobile and cloud technology – to standardize the way people in distress request emergency services. The system was predicated on the use of landline telephones connected by copper wire and analog technologies. Today, by comparison, at least 80 percent of the 240 million calls made to 9-1-1 centers every year originate from wireless devices, according to NENA statistics.

To be sure, digital communications technology has been a boon to emergency systems. The ability to text 9-1-1, for example, makes it possible for a person in distress to silently seek help. Video messaging would enable the country’s nearly 100,000 police, fire and ambulance call takers to pinpoint the location of an emergency and observe what’s happening on the ground. Despite those benefits, digital and legacy technology can’t always work well together.

Attempts to integrate legacy and modern systems have been underway for decades. In 1999, the Federal Communications Commission issued two phases of Enhanced 9-1-1 (E9-1-1) rules intended to improve the reliability of wireless 9-1-1 services. Those rules enlarged the capacity of legacy systems by enhancing information provided to 9-1-1 dispatchers, including callers’ phone numbers and the latitude and longitude of their location. More recently, the Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1) initiative envisions a nationwide, standards- and IP-based communications infrastructure that allows for voice and multimedia communication among 9-1-1 callers, PSAPs and first responders.

The National 9-1-1 Program, created in 2004, states that NG9-1-1 “will enhance emergency number services to create a faster, more resilient system that allows voice, photos, videos and text messages to flow seamlessly from the public to the 9-1-1 network ... [and] improve PSAP ability to help manage call overload, natural disasters, and transferring of 9-1-1 calls and proper jurisdictional responses based on location tracking.” Underlying those enhancements is the way NG9-1-1 supports access to telematics data and other resources, such as three-dimensional maps of public buildings’ interiors.

The technology for providing those capabilities already exists, but the infrastructure to support the delivery of this information to the PSAP is a work in progress. As of 2017, about half of the states and territories had implemented systems capable of processing and interpreting location and caller information for wired and wireless service using NG9-1-1-capable infrastructure.

The following pages examine the improvement of 9-1-1 services from several perspectives: technological issues, financial concerns, regulatory changes, impediments, opportunities and the way forward. This report also explores challenges that impede more PSAPs and emergency response offices from modernizing their 9-1-1 capabilities.

Modernization mission: IP-based 9-1-1 centers

The disconnect between today’s technology – mobile devices, apps and enterprise communications – and the fixed communications architectures on which legacy 9-1-1 systems were built presents many challenges for PSAPs and first responders. Participants in this research project overwhelmingly agreed that incompatible systems limit the precision and variety of data available to first responders – a deficit that increases risk both to people seeking help in an emergency and to first responders.

About half of the states and territories had implemented systems capable of processing and interpreting location and caller information for wired and wireless service using NG9-1-1-capable infrastructure.

“If you don’t have accurate location data or you don’t have precise enough location data, that will delay the response of first responders to the scene, which can allow a situation to escalate or can allow an emerging situation to continue to worsen,” a state 9-1-1 program manager said.

Historically, 9-1-1 systems relied on someone dialing from a landline phone and providing a 9-1-1 operator information about the emergency and its location. E9-1-1 service improved that process by automatically providing critical location information. In most of the country, E9-1-1 is in place for traditional wireline telephone service, linking telephone numbers to street addresses, according to a 2003 Government Accountability Office report.

In the era of digital transformation, however, emergency response systems and the environments in which they operate are more complex. Emergency calls originating with mobile devices route 9-1-1 calls through wireless communications. As SMS has become commonplace, users expect to have the option of texting for help, as well.

Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1) protocols were conceived to meet that demand. For them to work as conceived, PSAPs require modern, IP-based infrastructure, such as the Emergency Services IP network (ESInet), in order to receive voice, photos, videos and text messages.

“Legacy 9-1-1 systems are unable to deliver data to the public safety answering points,” a state 9-1-1 program manager said. Consequently, texts and advanced location data must take a separate path to PSAPs, thereby increasing the complexity of 9-1-1 systems and potential points of failure.

The target date for national deployment of NG9-1-1 is the end of 2020 – a deadline set by the NG9-1-1 NOW Coalition of NENA, the National Association of State 9-1-1 Administrators and the Industry Council for Emergency Response Technologies. When deployment is complete, “all 9-1-1 systems and centers in all 56 states and territories will have sufficiently funded, standards-based, end-to-end, IP-based 9-1-1 capabilities, and will have retired legacy 9-1-1 systems, without any degradation in service to the public,” according to the National 9-1-1 Program.

All participants in this research project reported that their organizations have modernization plans in place. In Colorado, the state 9-1-1 program is undertaking a year-long migration of every 9-1-1 call center to a new IP-based 9-1-1 network, beginning in October 2019. There’s also a new state-level ESInet users group to help guide the future development of the IP network.

The Texas Commission on State Emergency Communications has an approved project to transition 299 PSAPs off of 21 selective routers and onto an ESInet with an NG9-1-1 core function, laying the foundation to handle streaming video, photos and other dynamic data by Aug. 31, 2023.

Missouri is making upgrades to ensure its phone system is NG9-1-1-compliant, but the state lacks an ESInet, a managed IP network used for emergency services communications that all public-safety organizations can use, a county E9-1-1 chief said. Without an ESInet, 9-1-1 workers in St. Louis receiving a call intended for Kansas City can’t transfer it. Currently, they use Google to find a phone number for a PSAP in the city that should receive the call and pass along the information. “If we had a statewide ESInet, we would be able to just transfer that call with a push of a button,” the respondent said.

The shifting landscape of 9-1-1 regulation

On March 13, 1964, a man stabbed Kitty Genovese to death outside her New York City apartment building. The incident has reverberated for decades. Among other outcomes, the murder helped to spur broad acceptance of the 9-1-1 system. Four years later, 9-1-1 became the national emergency number.

Almost half a century later, the death of another woman illustrated that having a standard emergency number isn’t enough. In 2013, as Kari Hunt’s estranged husband stabbed her in a Marshall, Texas, hotel room, their 9-year-old daughter tried four times to call 9-1-1. She didn’t know that she had to first dial a “9” to get an outside line. Her mother died waiting for help to arrive.

“At the end of the day, ... even after Kari’s Law passed, if the same situation happened again with her, that system did not have to be up- dated” - A state emergency communications director

On Feb. 16, 2018 (the 50th anniversary of that historic first 9-1-1 call in Haleyville, Ala.), President Trump signed Kari’s Law, which requires all businesses to enable direct-dial access to 9-1-1 by Feb. 16, 2020, and to notify onsite personnel that someone has called for help and from where.

Although all but one respondent agreed or very much agreed that Kari’s Law will help improve the reliability of 9-1-1 systems, it applies only to multiline telephone systems made, imported or installed two years after the law’s 2018 enactment. Systems currently in place are exempt from the law.

“At the end of the day, ... even after Kari’s Law passed, if the same situation happened again with her, that system did not have to be updated,” a state emergency communications director said. “There’s nothing in the FCC’s rules that says that the technology has to be that it goes backwards. It’s only technology moving forward. So, a lot of these places, it’s going to be end-of-life on their current system before they implement and put in the new system that requires direct-dial.”

Despite that fact, liability lawsuits pose the largest monetary threat to the enterprise. While there was no actual law in effect in Texas at the time of Kari Hunt’s murder, lawyers successfully argued to a jury that the property knew about the problem and therefore was negligent. The Hunt Family Trust was awarded $41.55 million for the death of Kari.

Another new regulation aimed at improving 9-1-1 reliability is Section 506 of RAY BAUM’S Act, which seeks to provide dispatchers with precise location information. The section requires a “dispatchable” location to be conveyed with a 9-1-1 call, regardless of the platform used to make the call, including specific information, such as the room and floor in a building where the call originated. That specificity is impossible with traditional 9-1-1 systems but is easily provided with the solutions now available.

“It’s a good start,” a city fire chief said of the rules. “It’ll just take a lot of time before all those entities replace their phone systems and have to meet the new requirements. And once that does happen, enforcement will be a challenge, for sure. And a good way to mitigate some of those challenges is really to work with the vendors on the front end to make sure that functionality is built into the systems from the start.”

For some states and localities, compliance will be relatively easy. Pennsylvania has had similar requirements since 2016. Jefferson County, Ky., is ready, too. It can capture 9-1-1 calls, a respondent said, but it’s up to commercial providers to make sure their communications equipment allows for direct-dial.

Most of the onus for compliance falls on vendors, not PSAPs. “We accept the calls. It has to be presented in a way we can accept it. That’s up to the providers,” a county 9-1-1 director said. “These laws that are coming in, like Kari’s Law, affect more the business owners because they can’t have a PBX system anymore. We have to be able to identify exactly where that call’s coming from.”

Another respondent suggested that Kari’s Law will decrease the number of accidental calls PSAPs receive. “We see a lot of misdials in 9-1-1 centers as a result of people having to dial 9 and then another number,” a city director of E9-1-1 said. “For example, people dial 9 and then an international calling code and suddenly they’re talking to 9-1-1.”

Upgrades have a cost. Failing to upgrade is costlier.

Budgetary considerations loom large in the modernization plans of emergency operations departments. Survey respondents said the cost of improving enterprise systems to enhance 9-1-1 capabilities can be prohibitive. On a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (very much), the average score was 3.91.

In the United States, 9-1-1 providers get funding from fees paid on wireless and wireline phone bills, according to the National 9-1-1 Program. That revenue may not be enough to enable PSAPs to simultaneously maintain legacy operations and transition to modern technology. In 2012, the federal government authorized a 9-1-1 grant program as part of the NG9-1-1 Advancement Act. On Aug. 9, 2019, the program announced more than $109 million in grants to 34 states and two tribal nations, specifically for NG9-1-1 upgrades.

Still, the maximum federal share for projects funded under the grant program is 60 percent.

Applicants must match 40 percent of a project’s costs. The NG9-1-1 lifecycle cost estimate range, shared among localities, states and federal agencies, is $13.5 billion to $16 billion, with deployment estimated to be $9.5 billion to $12.7 billion over 10 years, according to a 2018 report to Congress.

Consider the budgetary implications for California. On Aug. 20, 2019, the state announced a $198 million contract to implement a statewide NG9-1-1 system, of which the 9-1-1 Grant Program would cover $11.4 million. Similarly, Kentucky received a $2.3 million grant, with the 9-1-1 Services Board contributing a match of $1.5 million to establish statewide GIS mapping, a portal, advanced location services and, availability of funds permitting, a statewide text-to-9-1-1 solution to every certified PSAP in the commonwealth.

“Regarding Kari’s Law, the ability to be able to call 9-1-1 without having to have a prefix, that’s huge.”

– State emergency communications director

Virginia received about $3 million from the 9-1-1 Grant Program. It used a local government procurement vehicle that lets other localities buy off it rather than a statewide request for proposals for NG9-1-1 services. “When looking at working with your state executives, [be] flexible in terms of adjusting ideas and adjusting approaches,” a public safety communications coordinator said. “There could be stakeholder groups that you haven’t thought of in terms of bringing to the table to talk about Next Generation 9-1-1. What I have found is that the stakeholder community is extremely broad, and it encompasses not just public safety, but it encompasses IT as well.”

“Technologically, there is a foundation that has to happen first, and that is that you have to move to an IP-based network. So the first step was actually an easy step to decide upon. It was just a very big step to make.”
– State 9-1-1 program manager

But 9-1-1 grants go to the states, not localities, with the expectation that they’ll trickle down to grass roots. That’s not always easy because “we don’t have enough money to accomplish what we need today in an analog Enhanced 9-1-1 world,” a state 9-1-1 coordinator said. “We have to change the way that we think in a government setting to save for the future. And when we buy a capital item, like the hardware needed to deliver 9-1-1, we need to make sure that as soon as we buy that and we install it, that we are looking for what’s going to happen next, in the next seven to 10 years. And we’re saving money towards that next thing.”

In Jefferson County, Mo., the 9-1-1 dispatch organization upgrades its phone system on a five-year rolling calendar. If a new technology comes out in the middle of a cycle, the county will likely wait until its upgrade time comes around again. “We would just have to weigh the pros and cons,” a county E9-1-1 chief said. “We would have to figure out how to budget for another potential upgrade.”

The way forward

The importance of 9-1-1 modernization is evident in the numbers. No respondents to this survey indicated a commitment to or satisfaction with the status quo. Despite being in various stages of deployment, every state and local organization represented in this research has undertaken upgrades to provide a more efficient, effective and reliable 9-1-1 system. The challenge is to maintain momentum.

Technology won’t stop evolving, and the overseers of emergency systems will never build the ideal 9-1-1 system. Even as they continue to maintain legacy systems and implement modern infrastructures, they must continue to be aware of emerging technology. “You can’t put your head in the sand,” one respondent said.

“The systems themselves are costly, but in relation to the value of life and property, it's minuscule.”

– County 9-1-1 dispatch director

Forward-looking organizations have their sights set on technologies enabled by a next-generation, IP-based infrastructure. “Development of GIS data for use by NG9-1-1 systems is possibly the largest impact on the NG9-1-1 implementation cycle at the local level,” according to the “NG9-1-1 Interstate Playbook Chapter 2.” On Aug. 27, 2019, NENA released its draft GIS data templates for public review. An interpretation of the NG9-1-1 GIS Data Model, the templates will provide a common data structure for data exchange between agencies or vendors, according to NENA.

In an NG9-1-1 system, location of the IP endpoint that supports the calling device is validated against local 9-1-1 authorities’ provisioned GIS data by the Location Validation Function, the model states. This same data is used with the Emergency Call Routing Function, which uses the location of the call to determine which PSAP should receive it. GIS standards are crucial to ensuring that NG9-1-1 systems are interoperable across counties, states and the country, according to NENA.

“Once we get to open standards and we have true interoperability, definitely it will help improve the overall public-safety communication environment,” a city fire chief said.

The National 9-1-1 Program also showed support for standards in its 2019 summary, "Advancing 9-1-1 Across the Nation": “Standards development for NG9-1-1 plays a vital role in helping 9-1-1 industry stakeholders and leaders make informed decisions towards an efficient, seamless and successful NG9-1-1 system. Sharing and compiling important standards developments into one comprehensive report has consistently proved helpful in these efforts.”

Gulf County, in Florida’s panhandle, is working with wireless carriers to update GPS and GIS capabilities and ensure that data can get to the 9-1-1 center. An obstacle in rural regions is a shortage of cell towers. To compensate, carriers must provide more satellite-based information. “Our strategy is just to continue to poke and prod and push so that they will get us the data that we need,” the E9-1-1 coordinator for the county said.

Pennsylvania sees promise in fine-tuning location data down to buildings’ floor plans and in providing video and temperature maps to first responders. “That will be very beneficial,” a city fire chief said. “It just has to be provided to the first responders in a method that they can easily digest and understand when responding to an incident. The last thing we want is first responders looking down at a phone while they’re driving very quickly to an incident.”

“Once we get to open standards and we have true interoperability, definitely it will help improve the overall public-safety communication environment.”

– City fire chief

Most incidents don’t require that level of data, a city E9-1-1 director said. “Sometimes I see all of these bells and whistles that are able to be provided today, and I find that there are actually very few emergencies that really require it. I’m not saying we shouldn’t. I’m just saying that it’s quite expensive [to provide] ...only to find that it’s used in an extremely small number of calls.” Indeed, almost every respondent agreed very much that the ability to stream accurate real-time data – reliable location data, floor plans, video, temperature maps and other data – helps first responders to more effectively respond to emergency calls.

“Data is so important, especially the real-time data. When you think about a 9-1-1 call, I think there’s almost an annoyance by callers sometimes because there are so many questions that have to get asked by the call taker,” a state E9-1-1 program manager said. “If all that information comes in naturally with the call, you’re saving a ton of time and frustration and giving that call taker and the responder such a better picture of what they’re getting into.”

Generally speaking, the public likely thinks that 9-1-1 systems are more technologically advanced than they actually are. A state E9-1-1 program manager said the typical person assumes “that we can already send video or that there’s a livestream of the entire city going on at the answering point.”

That’s not the case, but the 9-1-1 professionals who participated in this research project agree that the perception should become a reality.

Timeline

1957 – The National Association of Fire Chiefs recommends use of a single number for reporting fires.

1967 – The President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommends establishing a single number to be used nationwide for reporting emergencies.

November 1967 – The Federal Communications Commission and AT&T meet to work on creating a universal emergency number.

1968 – AT&T announces 9-1-1 as the U.S. emergency phone number.

Feb. 16, 1968 – In Haleyville, Ala., state politician Rankin Fite makes the first 9-1-1 call.

Early 1970s – Alameda County, Calif., becomes the first testbed for selective call routing, which was the first step to Enhanced 9-1-1.

March 1973 – The White House Office of Telecommunications issues a national policy statement encouraging nationwide adoption of 9-1-1. The office establishes a Federal Information Center to help interested agencies implement 9-1-1.

Late 1976 – 9-1-1 serves about 17 percent of the U.S. population.

1979 – About 26 percent of the country has 9-1-1 service.

1987 – About half the U.S. population has access to 9-1-1.

Oct. 26, 1999 – The Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act becomes law, directing FCC to make 9-1-1 the universal phone number for all communication devices and encouraging the deployment of a nationwide infrastructure for emergency services.

1999 – Almost 93 percent of the population has a form of 9-1-1 service, with 95 percent of coverage being Enhanced 9-1-1.

2003 – FCC starts collecting data to build a registry of public safety answering points, to which 9-1-1 calls are routed or transferred.

2008 – Congress begins urging the adoption of IP-based 9-1-1 systems that can accept text, photos and videos; use computer-based geolocation applications to locate callers; interconnect PSAP for call rerouting; and interconnect with other public safety systems for information sharing.

2009 – The first text-to-9-1-1 message is sent in Iowa.

2012 – Congress authorizes the First Responder Network Authority as an independent entity that will develop, build and operate the country’s first nationwide, broadband network dedicated to first responders.

2017 – Almost 99 percent of the U.S. population has access to 9-1-1 services.

Feb. 16, 2018 – President Trump signs Kari’s Law, which requires multiline phone systems to let callers dial 9-1-1 directly without first dialing a prefix such as 9 to reach an outside line and notifies a front or security office that a 9-1-1 call was made to facilitate responders’ entry to the building.

March 23, 2018 – President Trump signs RAY BAUM’s Act into law, including Section 506, which requires that dispatchable location information such as street address, floor level and room number be provided with 9-1-1 calls regardless of the communications platform used to place the call.

Aug. 1, 2019 – FCC implements Kari’s Law and adopts rules under Section 506 of RAY BAUM’s Act.

Sources: Congressional Research Service, Esri ArcGIS, Federal Communications Commission, First Responder Network Authority, NENA

About this research project

Between mid-August and early September 2019, GCN researchers interviewed 23 government workers at the municipal, county and state levels to learn about the state of their 9-1-1 systems, their main obstacles to 9-1-1 modernization and what they have learned from the upgrade efforts they’ve made so far. Respondents represent state emergency department directors, county 9-1-1 coordinators and city police chiefs throughout the country.

These interviews included a range of open-ended questions, as well as six specific statements for which respondents were asked to rate, on a scale of one to five, how strongly they agreed or disagreed. Additional research and subject-matter expert interviews also informed this report.

Avaya, the exclusive underwriter of this report, did not participate in the interviews or related research.

Participants by organization

Bentonville Police Department, Ark.
Branch County, Mich., 9-1-1/Central Dispatch
City of Huntington Beach, Calif.
City of Woodbury, Minn.
Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies
Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security
Georgia Emergency Communications Authority
Gulf County, Fla., Emergency Management
Harris County, Georgia, 9-1-1/Emergency Management Agency
Inyo County, Calif., Sheriff’s Department
Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management
Jacksonville, Fla., Sheriff’s Office
Jefferson County, Mo., 9-1-1 Dispatch
Kane County, Utah
Kentucky Office of Homeland Security
Lexington, Ky., Division of Enhanced 9-1-1
Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget
New Orleans 9-1-1
North Dakota Association of Counties
Oklahoma 9-1-1 Management Authority
Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency
Texas Commission on State Emergency Communications
Virginia Information Technologies Agency

GCN 9-1-1 research project questions

How much do you agree with the following statements, on a scale of one to five, with 1 meaning “not at all” and 5 meaning “very much.”

1.Mobile devices, apps and enterprise communications present challenges for legacy 9-1-1 systems that were developed to work with fixed communications architectures.

2.The ability to stream accurate real-time data – reliable location data, floor plans, video, temperature maps and other data – helps first responders to more effectively respond to emergency calls.

3.The cost of improving enterprise systems to enhance 9-1-1 capabilities can be prohibitive.

4.Legacy 9-1-1 systems are costly to operate.

5.New regulations (Kari’s Law and Section 506 of RAY BAUM’S Act) will improve the reliability of 9-1-1 systems.

6.My organization is taking steps to improve our enterprise communications system that will enable more robust and cost-efficient 9-1-1 capabilities.

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