Emergency upgrade

Next Generation 911 (NG911) is coming to your agency, and the time to begin planning and training is now. What is NG911? “Next Generation 911 just means one thing: the ability to communicate digital information over a new, hosted network for 911...


Next Generation 911 (NG911) is coming to your agency, and the time to begin planning and training is now.

What is NG911?

“Next Generation 911 just means one thing: the ability to communicate digital information over a new, hosted network for 911,” says Lisa Hoffmann, Deputy Director of the Communications Division of the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management. “The current 911 network is analog—and that’s nationwide—so, digital media cannot be accepted over that technology.”

Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to the advancement of 911, describes the implementation of NG911 as “moving our 911 system into the 21st century,” by replacing current analog service with an IP (Internet Protocol)-enabled system, which will be capable of providing public safety communications beyond voice, to eventually include text, data, photos and video.

Reality vs. public perception

With smartphone technology as pervasive as it is (statistics show that more than half of U.S. adults have smartphones), it’s no wonder the general public expects 911 technology to at least equal the level of sophistication of the now commonplace devices most of us have come to take for granted. “It confuses people a little, because they understand that their cell phone is a digital piece of communication [equipment],” Hoffmann says. Since they can call 911 successfully from their cell phones, shouldn’t it stand to reason that they could text 911 from their cell phones? “What happens when you dial 911 from a cellular phone is that it sends a digital radio signal, which can be converted through the analog system at a switch. And then when we transmit back, it’s being converted again…but it’s invisible to the user.”

“You can’t text 911? Wow, that’s shocking!” says Lorie Hedrick, of Kuna, Idaho. Yet, that’s the reality of the limitations of an antiquated system which hasn’t seen much in the way of upgraded technology since its inception. “You can text somebody in China, but you can’t text 911 right now,” Hoffmann says, “…when there’s a public perception that you should be able to get this service, then we have to work to meet that need.”

Traci Pimintel, a San Francisco resident, says, “Sometimes you can’t talk when something’s happening,” as when there’s an intruder in a home or a school. The shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 provided grim evidence of the disparity between public expectation and reality. Many of the victims and witnesses of the horrific events of that day tried to text 911, but their messages were never received by emergency dispatchers.

“What we’re looking at, for the very near future, is the ability to accept text,” according to Hoffmann. “Next Generation has been evolving in the industry, where the technology is concerned…the telephony equipment providers have developed products that can accept, and deliver, some of the media that we’re talking about: text, definitely…pictures, not so much yet, but that’s probably coming in the near future. And then we have to develop systems to be able to accept them in the 911 center.

We have a large hearing- and speaking-impaired community in San Francisco; we feel it’s an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) issue, and we should be able to treat their calls as we do any other 911 call…and really, that’s the goal we see for texting…for the people who really need to communicate with us [through] an alternative mechanism.”

Obstacles to implementation

SMS (Short Message Service) is defined by PC Magazine Encyclopedia as, “The common text messaging service available on cellphones and other handheld devices.” This service was originally designed for casual messaging, with no ability to prioritize messages, or to confirm transmission, receipt or message failure. And, although the four major U.S. wireless service providers (Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile) voluntarily agreed, ahead of an FCC mandate, to provide text-to-911 service to requesting Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) by May 15, 2014, there will likely be few agencies with capable PSAPs by that time.

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