When NextGen 911 services show up, cloud-based call centers will be ready

Durham, N.C., is one a handful of jurisdictions that have moved 911 call centers to the cloud, preparing to implement a full range of IP-based services as they become available.

Durham, N.C., is one of the first few jurisdictions in the country to move its 911 emergency call center operations to the cloud, opening the way for launching a full range of IP-based Next Generation 911 services as they become available.

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The change took place primarily in the back room of the city-county public safety call center, where servers were replaced with routers and traditional phone lines were replaced with multiple Multiprotocol Label Switching connections linking it with the Emergency Services IP Network (ESInet) from Intrado Inc., a 911 services provider.

At the front end, where the operators take the emergency calls, things have changed very little so far. “It’s the same screen they have always looked at” when answering a call, said Emergency Communications Center director James Soukup. “It’s transparent to them, except that they say the calls are clearer now.”

The shift is an early step toward realizing the Federal Communication Commission’s goal of incorporating the full capabilities of mobile phones and other Internet-enabled devices in public emergency communications systems under its NG911 initiative.

“There is a major push by the FCC for centers to be able to receive text messages,” Soukup said. That capability is just getting started, and Durham’s was the first Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) to test text-to-911 technology with Verizon Wireless. “That is now permanent for us,” he said. “We wanted to set the stage to go beyond that, to be able to receive pictures, video and other data as soon as it becomes available from carriers.”

The infrastructure to enable these services is being adopted by a growing number of jurisdictions, said Michael Lee, vice president of sales for Intrado, which provides geographic location technology, networking and other services. The company also offers links between carriers and more than 6,000 North American PSAPs, and its ESInet supports cloud-based routing and full call delivery services.

“Everything has been digitized,” Lee said. “We’ve moved past the early adopter stage” on IP-enabled 911 services.

The states of Hawaii, Minnesota, Washington and Vermont, as well as jurisdictions in North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, Ohio, California, Utah and Nevada use Intrado’s network and cloud-based routing for 911. Vermont and the Reno metro area in Nevada as well as Durham have moved all of their 911 operations to the Intrado cloud.

Having the infrastructure for NG911 does not mean having the service, however. “We just have the media for when the carriers are ready,” Soukup said.

How soon carriers will be ready to offer broader IP-to-911 services is anyone’s guess. Text-to-911 still is in its early stages and Verizon Wireless currently is one of only a few carriers offering it. In addition to Durham, it is being used by two communities in New York, in Frederick County, Md., and in York County, Va. The four major carriers, Sprint Nextel, AT&T and T-Mobile as well as Verizon, have committed to providing text-to-911 service to PSAPs that request it by May 2014. But although they are considering options for delivering other types of data over IP, such as images and video, spokesmen say there now are no concrete plans for testing or implementation.

Durham operates a consolidated PSAP for both the city and county and handles about 1,000 911 calls a day. It began its move to NG911 in 2011 when it was chosen by Verizon Wireless to trial 911 texting. The carrier delivers the text messages to the PSAP via Intrado.

“We put it in,” Soukup said, adding that it “was a simple process” for the PSAP. Operators already were familiar with using TDD (telecommunications device for the deaf) messaging. “It’s the same thing, so there was very little training involved.”

Despite the growing use of mobile phones for emergency calls and the common wisdom that young people would rather text than talk, 911 text usage has been very low in Durham. “In almost two years we’ve gotten three texts, and none was a real emergency,” Soukup said. Texting has its place, but it takes longer than a voice call and nobody is going to text for a heart attack, he said.

About the same time it began the text-to-911 trial, Durham decided to move its entire 911 service to the Intrado cloud. This not only reduced the amount of equipment to be maintained onsite by the PSAP, but it allows the center to take advantage of future service offerings without having to do additional hardware or software upgrades. “We would be ready today” for any services the carriers offer, Soukup said.

Intrado began about two years ago upgrading the analog long-distance telephone technology that has been used since the 1960s for routing 911 calls, replacing it with high-performance MPLS networking and IP-based routing hosted in redundant data centers on the East Coast and the central United States.

“We don’t have fiber in the ground,” Lee said. “We have wholesale agreements with major carriers for MPLS service. What we provide is the intelligence in the system to know where to route the calls, how to transfer them and maintain the quality.”

The network is built on the National Emergency Numbers Association’s i3 standard for end-to-end IP connectivity between originating carrier networks and PSAPs. Service providers using the standard form an interoperable Emergency Services IP Network that can link public safety agencies. The two Intrado data centers are both active and each routes calls to the proper PSAP as needed. Because both centers are active there is no need for failover if one should go down.

“The experience at the PSAP is completely unchanged” with a cloud service, Lee said. “The networks have gotten robust enough that we are delivering the service you used to get by having it loaded on a desktop or server in the back room.” PSAPs using the cloud service are served by dual MPLS connections from different sources, each capable of handling 100 percent of the needed capacity to prevent outages from local disruptions. Lee said that none of the Intrado network’s customers on the East Coast suffered 911 outages during last year’s Super Storm Sandy.

“This should reduce vulnerability to outages,” Soukup said. “In the cloud everything can be rerouted.”

By using a cloud service for 911 services, jurisdictions avoid the capital outlay of a hardware upgrade and can replace some phone services. “It’s more efficient for government to use a service like this,” Lee said. Durham is expected to save about $200,000 a year in surcharge funds.

But that does not mean that 911-as-a-service is cheap. A jurisdiction still has to pay for the service and for redundant Internet connections with enough bandwidth to handle traffic. “Rarely is it cheaper,” Lee said. Sometimes it is comparable and often it is more expensive.

But the reliability and promise of new functionality and the opportunity for doing away with hardware made the move attractive to Durham, Soukup said. PSAPs around the country won’t necessarily be rushing to adopt the service, however.

It all depends on the funding mechanism,” he said. “We have a 60-cent surcharge on all phones in the state. This was entirely funded from the 60 cents received on every telephone bill,” and the city and county did not have to go for a general fund tax increase.

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