Funding & Running the Emergency Communications Centers of the Future

The 2019 APCO Public Safety Broadband Summit examined NG911 funding and implementation challenges on the local level as it explores the future with NG911.

APCO’s 2019 Public Safety Broadband Summit took place May 21st and 22nd in Arlington, Virginia. The Broadband Summit provides an opportunity for 911 center leaders, public safety professionals, technology developers, legislators and others to discuss the latest technology advancements impacting public safety communications networks, the capabilities these advancements will offer, and the challenges that will inevitably accompany the transition to these state-of-the-art technologies.

The summit opened with remarks from FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. Expressing her admiration for emergency communications professionals, she recalled her emotional visit to the emergency call center (ECC) in nearby Alexandria, Virginia, that had dispatched first responders to the site of the 2017 Congressional baseball shooting.

Commissioner Rosenworcel commended the efforts of Representative Norma Torres  — the only former 911 dispatcher currently serving in Congress — for co-sponsoring the “911 SAVES Act,” which will update the Office of Management and Budget’s Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) of public safety telecommunications professionals from administrative support occupations to first responder occupations. These changes are long overdue, according to Rosenworcel. “With this recognition comes dignity, and more training opportunities,” she said. “We need these things to stay safe.”

With more than 6,000 public safety answering points (PSAPs) across the country, “funding is highly local, but the transition to Next Generation 911 (NG911) needs to be financed at the national level,” she said. “Congress is recognizing that.”

Funding NG911

An important step in that direction is recently-introduced House and Senate bills which would allocate $12 billion in Federal funds for grants to help state and local governments deploy NG911.  “That’s a terrific start,” Rosenworcel said.  She hopes that the progress these grants will facilitate can be used as a carrot to attract additional funding.

Currently, many IP-based 911 networks lack interoperability. “We need to create a collective vision of NG911,” Rosenworcel said. “Achieving seamless interoperability will require increasing capital expenditures, and reducing the presence of proprietary interfaces.”

A key challenge facing the FCC is how to get the same 5G technology that will soon be widely available to consumers into the hands of 911 professionals and first responders. The problem is determining the best method of doing so — “that’s a conversation we need to have,” Rosenworcel said.

At a local level, Maryland State Senator Cheryl Kagan told how she was inspired to take on 911 reform after the lightning strike death of a constituent, Carl Henn, who did not receive timely medical assistance because the local PSAP was overwhelmed with calls. She has advocated tirelessly for the issue, and sponsored numerous pieces of legislation to facilitate Maryland’s transition to NG911. Largely due to her efforts, two bills in 2018 and three in 2019 have been signed into state law.

Senator Kagan helped create a diverse statewide commission comprised of PSAP directors, technology experts, telecommunications industry representatives, cybersecurity experts and others. This group issued a 65-page report featuring 23 recommendations, all of which were ultimately approved.Getting there was far from easy.

First you have to have a problem, then craft a solution — but the devil’s in the details,” she said. “I had to make a case that the current system was somewhat broken, and that we needed to update.”

“Funding is the hardest part,” Kagan said. “On average, Maryland’s counties only receive 37.5% of their 911 expenses from the one dollar 911 fee.” To help overcome this shortfall, new legislation increases the state portion of the fee from 25 cents to 50 cents (raising the total per phone from $1 to $1.25), closes the billing loophole so that every phone on an account is assessed the 911 fee, and gives individual counties the authority to increase the local portion of the 911 fee in case of a future shortfall.

“These new laws will save lives,” Kagan said. “When 911 fails, people die.”

NG911 Transition is More than Sticker Shock

A panel of 911 center leaders shared their experiences serving on the front lines of public safety, as well as their apprehension about the changes that NG911 will bring.

Tony Rose, chief of 911 in Charles County, Maryland, looks forward to the new capabilities of NG911, most notably the instantaneous delivery of accurate location information.

More often than not, we get the location of a tower, then there’s a delay before we get the actual location,” he said. “That’s a delay when something terrible could happen. Getting immediate location information for a caller is the most important part of NG911.”

Panelists touched upon the training challenges that will be part of the transition to NG911. “The necessary skill sets will be completely different under NG911,” said Karima Holmes, director of Washington, DC’s Office Unified Communications. “It’s like a fireman flying a jet instead of driving a truck. In addition to all that they’re doing now, ECC staff will need a whole set of additional skills — such as interpreting video.”

“Implementation will be everything,” said Philadelphia Fire Commissioner and Director of the Office of Emergency Management Adam Thiel. “My work force is crushed every day as it is. There will be a huge learning curve [for NG911]. I’m concerned about additional costs, such as overtime or adding additional staff. There is already sticker shock over the technology costs — just wait until we see all of these additional costs.”

Eddie Reyes, director of the Prince William County, Virginia, Office of Public Safety Communications is seeing significant changes to ECC staffing, as well. “Starting this fiscal year, I’ve put in for two new full-time positions that NG911 will require,” he said. “We need to be prepared.”

NG911 + FirstNet Promises Better Outcomes

Yet for all the challenges implementing NG911 will entail, panelists agreed that it will allow them to better perform their jobs. “This is more than an enhancement of legacy 911, it’s the replacement of an aging infrastructure that’s been taken for granted,” said Thiel. “The average citizen doesn’t understand how important this is — public education is important.”

In another session, policy leaders talked about their roles in advancing public safety technology. “We insure that telecom providers are doing all they can to lighten the load of 911 professionals, including network reliability and location accuracy,” said David Furth, FCC deputy chief of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. “We make sure that 911 service is supported, and, if not, to find out why.”

Furth reiterated the critical importance of location accuracy. “Location is critical, whether legacy or NG911,” he said. “The work we do on improving location accuracy will lead to better outcomes.”

First responders stand to benefit tremendously from new technologies, especially in combination with FirstNet, the nationwide interoperable broadband public safety network.

FirstNet will solve process flow problems, by allowing information to flow where it needs to,” said Marsha MacBride, associate administrator of the NTIA Office of Public Safety Communications. “It will dramatically improve coverage in areas where it’s currently lacking. Today, consumers on one side of a border may have access to state of the art technology, while those on the other side have legacy 911.”

Echoing a theme heard earlier in the summit, MacBride noted that “E911 will be constantly chasing telecom. The challenge will be bringing private sector technology into the PSAPs and out to the first responders.”

This was APCO’s final Public Safety Broadband Summit. Beginning in 2020, the event will become “Nexus: The NG11 Experience Reimagined.” With Nexus, APCO promises “an experience unlike any other, where attendees will be immersed into a comprehensive and educational 360-degree view of the future state of emergency incident response.”

Learn more about Nexus 2020 on APCO’s Nexus website.

About the Author

Rick Schadelbauer is an Arlington, Virginia, based freelance writer who has spent the past twenty years tracking and writing about technical and economic trends in the telecommunications industry.

Read more from APCO’s 2019 Public Safety Broadband Summit:

APCO Public Safety Broadband Summit: Delivering Actionable Incident Information to Field Responders

APCO Public Safety Broadband Summit: Cybersecurity and Public Safety Seminar

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