March 13, 2017
Next-generation 911 (NG911) and the nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN) being implemented by the(FirstNet) are Internet Protocol (IP)-based, broadband communications systems that are expected to dramatically enhance first-responder communications in the U.S. They will do so by enabling high-bandwidth applications that are unthinkable today in a world dominated by narrowband communications technology.
Both the NPSBN and NG911 are game-changers, because they make possible what previously was impossible. Among the new capabilities these networks will provide include the following:
- NPSBN and NG911: Ability to wirelessly transmit bandwidth-intensive data that would choke narrowband systems, such as streaming video and images; computer-aided-dispatch ( ) and geographic-information-system (GIS) data; , and field-reporting data; building floor plans and schematics; and hazardous-materials (hazmat) manifests.
- NG911: Ability to share emergency call data between 911 centers (also known as , or PSAPs).
- NG911: Ability to transfer the operations of one 911 center to another center—located in the next municipality, county or state—when a 911 center becomes inoperable, inaccessible or uninhabitable, often due to a natural or manmade disaster.
While it would be difficult to find anyone in public safety who believes that either of these networks will fall short of expectations from a technology perspective, they almost certainly will not become all that they could because of the way in which they are being implemented.
Without question, FirstNet and the 911 community deserve ample praise for their efforts thus far to advance the NPSBN and NG911, which represent a quantum leap forward for first responder communications. However, these networks are destined to fall short of their full potential.
Much of the communications described in the first bullet above will flow through 911 centers, which currently are not configured to handle them. For instance, streaming a video feed from an incident scene to a 911 center that has no means of receiving or processing the information is of little use.
Consequently, not only must the NPSBN and NG911 be ubiquitous throughout all U.S. states and territories, they must be seamlessly integrated. Much stands in the way of that ubiquity and unification.
During the 2014(APCO) national conference held in New Orleans, Jay English, APCO’s then-director of communications center and 911 services was quoted during a panel discussion as describing the NPSBN and NG911 as “two halves of the same whole.” This is an incredibly cogent and apt observation. But it is not the first time that such an observation has been made.
In a May 2013 webinar hosted by the National 911 Program, Charles Dowd, the former New York City Police Department (NYPD) assistant chief in charge of communications, described an incident that occurred on a city bus involving a rider who was carrying a concealed handgun. Another rider, who happened to be an NYPD dispatcher, saw the handgun and texted another dispatcher’s cellular phone, because she knew that the city’s 911 center was unable to handle text-to-911 calls—a capability that NG911 systems will provide. The second dispatcher then placed the emergency call.
In recalling the incident, Dowd, who was a member of theboard of directors at the time, said the following:
“In the future, what I would envision in that scenario … is that she would be able to surreptitiously text to 911 and explain directly to a 911 call-taker what’s going on, [and] why she’s texting the information instead of calling.
“Then, not only should the 911 call-taker that’s receiving the information be able to act on it, but—if we integrate correctly with the public-safety broadband network—there should be an ability to pass that information directly to responding units in real time, so that they can actually see those texts and act on [that information] as well, rather than getting it once, twice or even three times removed."
FirstNet seemed to indicate that it understands the pivotal role that 911 plays in emergency response by naming Bill Hinkle—the former director of emergency communications for the Hamilton County (Ohio) Department of Communications and a past president of the(NENA)—as a senior advisor. Nevertheless, the integration that Dowd describes is destined to never occur, precisely because the public-safety sector is falling victim to its traditional-but-archaic way of thinking as it implements the NPSBN and NG911.
For decades, public-safety communications networks and systems have been implemented as standalone entities, with little if any thought given to how those networks and systems will interoperate with other networks and systems, both inside and outside the agency. The same mistake is being made regarding the NPSBN and NG911, which currently are on parallel implementation paths, in large measure because they are viewed as related, but ultimately separate and different networks.
This has to change; specifically, the industry needs to stop thinking and talking about the NPSBN and NG911 as individual entities. Instead, it needs to start talking about a new revolutionary public-safety communications platform with two vital, integrated components, one that serves the needs of first responders in the field (the NPSBN) and the other (NG911) that serves the needs of the first responders in our nation’s 911 centers—i.e., emergency call-takers and dispatchers—as well as the public they serve. New platforms should inspire new thinking, and that’s not happening in public safety right now.
History provides many examples of this phenomenon at work. One of the best comes from the earliest days of the automotive industry. The first concepts for automobiles resembled motorized versions of the legacy transportation options that were available at the time: trains, horse-drawn carriages and bicycles. They all failed, because they were attempts at applying old solutions to a new challenge. Only when Karl Benz took a clean sheet of paper and started from scratch did the modern automobile emerge. Four decades later, Henry Ford used the same approach to solve another problem that the fledgling industry was having—how to produce cars that the masses could afford—by developing the automotive assembly line.
Unfortunately, the public-safety sector is falling into the same trap regarding the NPSBN and NG911 that the earliest automotive companies fell into. Today’s challenge concerns how to enable the public, first responders, 911 telecommunicators, incident commanders, emergency managers, and trauma-center personnel to seamlessly share information about an emergency incident, from a plethora of sources, in real time.
But public safety is applying the old thinking in its attempt to overcome this challenge by implementing two individual networks—the NPSBN and NG911—rather than implementing a unified broadband communications platform that has both the NPSBN and NG911 integrated at its core.
The good news is that it still is early enough in the process for those involved with engineering these networks to come together and shift the paradigm. This will require public-safety leaders to talk with each other—and then with federal lawmakers and policymakers—repeatedly, until they see things the same way. This would be similar to the effort that led to the authorization of FirstNet and the NPSBN.
There is ample precedent for this network unification. For example, there was a time not that long ago when each branch of the military had its own communications network. That is no longer the case. Today, the Department of Defense (DOD) operates the Non-Classified IP Router Network, or NIPRNet, which is used by the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard to exchange non-classified information. Similarly, the DOD and the Department of State use the Secret IP Router Network, or SIPRNet, to exchange classified information—again, one shared platform, not two siloed networks.
The same lessons were learned by the business community. Think about a large bank with multiple branches, or a large hospital with multiple campuses. Does each branch or campus have its own communications network? Of course not. In each case, a single communications network serves all of the branches or campuses. The result is the seamless exchange of data, as well as reduced costs associated with network implementation, security, operation and maintenance.
Billions of dollars will be invested in capital and user fees over the next couple of decades to enhance public-safety communications. It makes no sense at all in today’s environment to duplicate efforts by building two separate networks, which is the current approach being applied to the NPSBN and NG911. Why is public safety insisting on pursuing a path that the military and business communities long ago proved to be woefully inefficient? What is needed instead—to maximize the enormous financial investment—is a single public-safety communications platform that serves the public and all of the first-responder communities, including 911.
History tells us that technology is most valuable when it improves the user experience. In the case of the technologies that will be leveraged by the NPSBN and NG911, they ultimately will be measured by their ability to enhance emergency response and to keep first responders safer. Again, this ability will be enhanced by developing a unified communications platform with the NPSBN and NG911 integrated at the core.
The possibilities for leveraging the synergies between the NPSBN and NG911 are virtually endless, if they are integrated. One example is that workgroups could be created in a unified platform, similar to the talkgroups that exist today in 800 MHz trunking systems. All sorts of data files could be dropped into such workgroups, and accessed by members—police, fire, emergency medical services (EMS), 911 and more—on an as-needed basis. That won’t be possible, if the NPSBN and NG911 are implemented as standalone networks.
Yet another benefit of integrating the NPSBN and NG911 at the core of a unified communications platform is that a single set of cybersecurity policies can be developed. An enormous amount of data will pass between these two networks, so it is imperative that they operate under the same requirements to reduce the likelihood of a cybersecurity breach of either system.
Of course, integrating the NPSBN and NG911 is only half the battle; both networks also must be ubiquitous from coast to coast, as one without the other in any given area really doesn’t work—recall that much of the data generated by the NPSBN technology will find its way into the nation’s 911 centers, which will need NG911 technology to process it all. But there are vexing challenges that stand in the way of joint ubiquity. Most of those challenges concern NG911, which has not received anywhere near the level of support from the federal government—particularly from a financial perspective—that the NPSBN has received thus far.
For example, while the Middle Class Tax Relief and Jobs Creation Act appropriated $7 billion in seed money for the NPSBN, it only identified $115 million for NG911. Consequently, even though NG911 today is further along the implementation curve compared with the NPSBN—Emergency Services IP Networks (ESInets) that provide the foundational network architecture for NG911 are popping up from coast to coast—the NPSBN almost certainly will become ubiquitous much earlier than NG911, because of the support it is receiving from the federal government.
During the aforementioned webinar hosted by the National 911 Program in 2014, Jeff Vannais—communications supervisor with the East Hartford (Conn.) Police Department and a board member with the NG911 Institute—noted the wide funding disparity, stating, “At some point, if we’re going to say that NG911’s success is as important as’s success, then we’ve got to put them on the same plane.”
Last fall, Nancy Pollock of Mission Critical Partners, which is a member of the Industry Council for Emergency Response Technologies (iCERT), wrote a column for’s Urgent Communications that addressed the situation. The following is an excerpt:
The [NG911 NOW! Coalition’s] goal is that all 911 centers in all 56 states and territories will have NG911 systems in place—and will have retired all legacy 911 systems—by the end of 2020.
Money is needed to make this goal a reality—a lot of it. That’s where Congress can play a critical enabling role, by committing to funding nationwide implementation of NG911, just as it did five years ago, when it funded the deployment of the [NPSBN].
Currently, the money collected in the form of wireless 911 surcharges only covers a portion of the cost of providing 911 service in most jurisdictions; the rest comes from other taxpayer-provided sources. The problem is that the current level of 911 funding in most places is barely enough to provide the current level of service—the idea of migrating to next-generation technology simply is out of the question, given the upfront transition cost.
... Admittedly, it won’t be easy for Congress to find the money. But that’s exactly what was said more than a decade ago about the [NPSBN].
To read iCERT’s guiding principles for FirstNet’s implementation of the NPSBN, click here.
Before Congress can be persuaded to become NG911’s champion, at least from a financial perspective, it first might need to have its collective attitude changed regarding 911 centers and those who work in them. The perception is that there is a public-safety sector—which consists of law enforcement, the fire service, and EMS—and then there is the 911 sector.
It has been argued that this perception has been fueled over the decades by the U.S. Department of Labor, which classifies 911 telecommunicators as clerical workers. Such a notion is patently wrong-headed. Someone who instructs a mother on what to do after she finds her child not breathing and unresponsive is no clerical worker; rather that person is the first first responder. This, too, requires new thinking that is long past due.
The NPSBN and NG911 together will bring first-responder communications to spectacular new levels. However, these networks need to be both ubiquitous and unified, if they are to reach their full potential. This will require lawmakers and policymakers—as well as the public-safety sector itself—to think in new ways that at first might seem quite foreign. What is needed is a public-safety version of the Gestalt principle applied to the NPSBN and NG911—i.e., the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, even when the parts are pretty great by themselves.
Kevin Murray is past chairman of iCERT and president and founder of Mission Critical Partners, Inc. (MCP), a public-safety-communications consulting firm headquartered in State College, Pennsylvania. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com.