Public Safety Advocate: NG9-1-1, Dispatch, and FirstNet

Let’s Start with a Happy Birthday to 9-1-1

9-1-1 celebrated its 50-year anniversary last week. Countless lives have been saved by the expediency of the 9-1-1 system and those answering the phones who take charge when needed, sometimes calming a hysterical mother or father and then walking him or her through first steps to administer aid until paramedics arrive. Every month we hear stories about how a 9-1-1 operator saved a life by instructing the caller how to do CPR compressions on the chest, to keep air flowing, or some other way to administer first aid until help arrives. While 9-1-1 services have made a huge difference in public safety responses to emergencies, many 9-1-1 centers have not been upgraded for a number of years.

From Citizen to Responder

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column entitled, “Rural Broadband, the Headless Horseman” to make the point that not only FirstNet but a multitude of federal, state, and other agencies have their sights set on providing broadband to rural America but since there is no leadership at the top to organize all of the disparate efforts, it will take a lot longer to solve the digital divide issue than it should. This brings me to another series of services that are interrelated but seem to be moving forward without much in the way of structured management to make sure all the pieces fit together in what citizens will see as seamless experiences in receiving public safety assistance.

It starts with what happens when a citizen calls 9-1-1 and connects to a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) that takes and verifies as much information as possible and then passes it over to the dispatch center, which then notifies the first responder community of the type, nature, and location of the call based on the information obtained. It should be noted that sometimes the PSAP and dispatch center are one and the same, sometimes they are co-located, and sometimes they are apart from each other.

The last piece of information, location, is often the most difficult to determine because many calls come from a highway and the citizen has no clue as to exactly where he/she is. Unfortunately, our FCC’s old and now new rules for 9-1-1 location-based services won’t help the location issue much, but that is a longer and different story. Once the call is verified, it is sent to the dispatcher at the dispatch center or in some smaller PSAPs, the person answering the call becomes the dispatcher for the call. From there it is sent out to appropriate field units such as a single police car, multiple fire apparatus, a paramedic unit, or any combination of these.

Unfortunately, in many areas the law enforcement dispatch center and fire/EMS dispatch centers are not co-located so an additional step is required if both law and fire/EMS are to respond. The dispatch is normally put out verbally though fire services sometimes use tones to open station receivers, portable radios, and pagers so those needing to can hear the call. The voice dispatch, especially for law enforcement, is put out over a citywide or districtwide radio channel. This is done so other units in the field are made aware of the incident and sometimes move closer to the incident in case they may be required. By the way, this is a one-to-many voice dispatch and I am not aware of this being available yet in any LTE broadband systems. The voice part of a dispatch is, I believe, vitally important because it arrives first and it is heard by those who need to know about the call as well as others in the area.

More and more, departments are following up the voice dispatch by sending additional information to Mobile Data Terminals (MDTs), notebooks, or tablets usually mounted in vehicles. In the future using FirstNet, this same data, picture, or even video can be sent to handheld units as well. In route to an incident, the data for the call might be updated as more information is received by the PSAP or as more citizens call in with additional information. Today, most of the information being transmitted by data is down to the vehicles but, again, in the future we expect it to be up to the dispatch center as well, especially when video of an active scene is available. Today these devices are used for sending license plate checks and other information up to the dispatch center and sometimes after-action reports are transmitted as well. We expect the types and amount of data sent and received from field personnel to grow considerably with the ability to send and receive pictures and video, and applications that make submitting reports easier.

All of the Pieces Must Work Together

To complete a successful dispatch, the PSAP, dispatch center, and those being dispatched to the incident all have to work well together. In most instances, these functions work flawlessly together but what about tomorrow? There are changes either here or coming to all three of these vital pieces of the puzzle. Many 9-1-1 centers are old and perhaps out of date. This is partly because some states, including California, New Jersey, and others have usurped funds set aside for 9-1-1 improvements. Recently, FCC Commissioner O’Rielly sent letters to New York, Oklahoma, Missouri, Montana, and Puerto Rico calling those governments out for not complying with the FCC request to report on 9-1-1 deployment and whether or not they diverted funds from the program. These states and others have for years deposited either a portion or all of the 9-1-1 tax funds collected by the phone companies into their general funds and diverted the money away from keeping their PSAPs up to date. In some areas of California, the Highway Patrol is still receiving all 9-1-1 calls from cell phones and has to transfer the call to the proper PSAP, losing time and sometimes routing the call to the wrong PSAP.

There are a number of areas in the United States where there are, frankly, too many PSAPs in a county. In one county with a population slightly more than 200,000 spread over three or four cities, there are five different PSAPs in operation, as well as perhaps too many dispatch centers. There is a growing trend to consolidate in some areas and this has resulted in significant decreases in dispatch times, as well as cost savings to the communities.

Enter NG9-1-1, PSAP Upgrades, and FirstNet

It seems there is a perfect storm of activities coming to the public safety community. Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1) is installed in some places, enabling text messages, pictures, and even videos in some cases to be received by the PSAP, reviewed and sent on to the dispatch center, and then sent out to the responding units. Upgrading the PSAPs is a costly exercise, especially in states where the 9-1-1 income was “reallocated.” Most communities cannot afford the large capital and operational expenses needed to make NG9-1-1 possible. Many organizations such as National Emergency Number Association (NENA), APCO International, the National 9-1-1 Program, Next Generation 9-1-1 Institute, and others are working together to help obtain funding for NG9-1-1 upgrades as soon as possible.

While the transition from 9-1-1 PSAPs to NG9-1-1 PSAPs is taking place, dispatch centers are upgrading some of their existing equipment as well adding more equipment to cope with the increased incoming text, picture, and video traffic that will be coming to them from both the PSAPs and the field. Data security for both NG9-1-1 and dispatch centers must receive top priority as well as the connections between citizens and PSAPs, then dispatch centers will have to be upgraded to high-speed fiber and/or microwave. Another issue facing dispatch centers is that there are a large number of Computer-Aided-Dispatch (CAD) programs in use. None of them seem to communicate well with other CAD systems, and in some cases, maps stored at one CAD system are in a different format than in neighboring dispatch centers. Many issues need to be addressed and one that has received a lot of recent attention is the ability to hand off PSAP and dispatch functions to a remote location or to a nearby PSAP and/or dispatch center. This has already proven to be a vital capability during major storms such as Katrina and the three most recent destructive hurricanes.

Work needs to proceed to bring high-speed broadband into the PSAPs and dispatch centers, to upgrade the equipment in use and, of course, to provide training for operators and dispatchers who will be responsible for keeping everything running. All this takes funding and it all funnels right into the new Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) that is FirstNet. The PSAP feeds the dispatch center, which feeds the field personnel, and during a major incident, the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) needs to be included in the process. FirstNet funding has been taken care of via the $6.5 billion FirstNet has from the last big spectrum auction and the $billions more being put into the network, security, applications, and devices by FirstNet’s contractor, AT&T. However, there will still be some costs associated with integrating FirstNet into a typical public safety communications system.

Through all this there is a common thread…or should I say fiber? The high-speed fiber and/or microwave systems to carry citizens’ information into the PSAP and send it on to the dispatch center where it will be transmitted over thousands of towers are all tied back to the main network with high-speed fiber and/or microwave. Further, public safety agencies are not the only members of the community that need reliable high-speed data services. City and county governments need these services for all the things they do on a day-to-day basis, businesses need them to ensure they have the resources to compete, and schools, libraries, hospitals, and others also need broadband. Yet today, as with rural broadband, there do not seem to be many places in the country where there is coordination between all of the entities that need and want access to fiber.

An Aside: One of the most interesting dead ends we keep running into comes when we ask the fiber providers in a given area to provide us with a map of their fiber assets. The smaller fiber companies ask when we want it and generally deliver it before the due date. They provide maps, connection points, the number of fibers in each route, where they would be willing to make junctions, and the age and condition of their fiber runs. The larger ones such as CenturyLink/Level 3, Frontier, Verizon FIOS, Google, and Cox Communications will not provide us with any information or access to information. It is difficult to put together a cohesive plan for a community when fiber, wireless network tower locations, and coverage are not willingly provided. Even though I am a free market advocate and believe in multiple competitors, I have to wonder if we might have broadband in more places sooner if we went back to a single communications company.


There are three vital steps to putting first responders on the road toward an incident. The PSAP, the dispatch center, the radio system over which calls are dispatched, and now FirstNet, over which additional information, pictures, and videos are and will be sent to and from the field. Public safety has come a long way in obtaining spectrum and an organization devoted to the public safety broadband network. However, the other two pieces of the puzzle are not well funded nor are they part of the FirstNet mandate. Even so, they must function in concert with FirstNet and existing land mobile radio systems.

Several organizations are asking members of Congress to step up and help fund NG9-1-1. The FCC and others are cracking down on states that believe 9-1-1 funding is simply another source of general fund income, and others are trying to bridge the gaps between dispatch CAD systems and FirstNet. It certainly does not help when there are so many different Computer-Aided-Dispatch systems with so many different protocols. This makes interfacing FirstNet and dispatch centers more difficult and it hinders dispatch center-to-dispatch center communications.

FirstNet was established because the public safety community came together and fought for it for years. However, NG9-1-1 and dispatch center upgrades are seen as the responsibility of local and state entities. This will not get the job done in a timely fashion. If we need to modernize the public safety communications systems and services, that means all of them including the PSAPs and dispatch centers.

I don’t have an answer, but I hope some smart people are working on these issues. We need more cooperation within the public safety community as well as between public safety and other entities that need and want broadband. Broadband is the basis for future communications services for public safety, cities, counties, businesses, educational facilities, and anywhere people need access. Let’s work together on this.

Andrew M Seybold
©2018 Andrew Seybold, Inc.


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