The Next Generation of Emergency Communications

Next generation communications, especially NG9-1-1 is a good thing. Evolving as public safety professionals will improve our ability to serve our public. But, what about the effect of this innovation on our public safety telecommunicators?

Terms like Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1), next generation communications, D block and interoperability have entered even the darkest corners of public safety communications. Operators for the last few years have been dealing with the changes switching from analog to digital and many to whole new radio systems. Now these new terms have entered our vernacular. But what do they mean? Especially what do they mean to those public safety telecommunications operators who are in the trenches working the floor?

Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1)

NG9-1-1 is essentially an upgrade of the 9-1-1 infrastructure that allows communications between individuals and 9-1-1 operators. Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) will have the ability to be on a wireless mobile network allowing communication beyond the voice over a telephone landline that defined 9-1-1 in the past. NG9-1-1 is more in line with what commercial entities have been offering and upgrading for quite some time. Callers will have the ability to transmit images, text messages, video and other data through a wireless server straight to the PSAP. In this transition some see this as futuristic public safety telecommunications, while some of the younger 9-1-1/dispatchers see this as public safety finally catching up with technology that has always been a part of their lives.

Numerous public safety organizations, such as APCO and NENA have been involved in legislation and incorporating best practices so that public safety gets the broadband spectrum it needs to support NG9-1-1 and next generation communications, but also assisting in determining funding and governance as well. In looking at the changes, a few concerns crop up.

Call access, transfer and back-up between PSAPs

One of the issues that has plagued 9-1-1 over the years is what to do when a PSAP is overwhelmed with calls. Most systems currently do not have the capability to roll-over those calls to another PSAP without much technical difficulty. Some systems do not have this capability at all. If a caller rings 9-1-1 during a time of heavy call volume they will get a busy signal. Often heavy call volume can happen because a vehicle accident occurs on the freeway during rush hour or at midnight on New Year’s Eve when residents decide it is a good idea to fire into the air. If these small scale events trigger a busy signal, this does not increase the public’s confidence in our ability to handle a large scale event, such as a natural disaster or a terrorist attack.

With NG9-1-1, PSAPs will have the ability to have call access, transfer and back-up with other PSAPs. Although the benefits of this are huge especially in small, rural areas where only one operator may be on shift, there are also some protocols that must be in place for this to work smoothly. For example, what training will operators have to work together? How will each agency have the ability to determine locations within jurisdictions they are unfamiliar with? Will agencies have similar standards for their public safety operators increasing our confidence in another agency’s operators? How will the notification work? Will operators in a PSAP be alerted that a roll-over has occurred and how will this be handled? If a call is allegedly mishandled, which agency will fund the defense?

Although many of these questions make it seem public safety operators cannot work together across jurisdictional lines that is not the intent. Instead they offer a look at the often lack of training and understanding agencies have at the floor level when they are forced into situations where they have to work together without a good understanding of the rules and guidelines which help individuals with a common goal but different policies and procedures work together smoothly, efficiently and effectively.


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