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

In early November, I will be at the International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE) Critical LTE Communications Conference in Chicago. On the second day, I will be moderating a panel entitled, “LTE’s Interoperability with LMR and 911.” All the panelists are subject-matter experts so I have an easy job as moderator. Preparing for this panel started me thinking about what should be the true goal of an end-to-end public safety communications system. Once Next-Generation 9-1-1 has been widely implemented and the Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) and dispatch centers have been upgraded, the result should be a near-flawless system from the time a citizen calls 9-1-1 to the last unit on the scene being released and the paperwork completed.

PSAPs or 9-1-1 centers today, in most places, are still voice-centric in nature. The goal of NG9-1-1 is to modernize their capabilities to include incoming text messages, pictures, and videos. These can then be processed, and if needed, sent on to the responding units over FirstNet so those responding will have a better understanding of the incident and/or any vehicles or people fleeing the scene. Unfortunately, NG9-1-1 is the last piece of the puzzle for several reasons. First, many states have and continue to “re-appropriate” funds earmarked for 9-1-1 from all of our phone bills, and when Congress passed the bill that created FirstNet and allocated $7 billion for the initial costs of FirstNet, it only allocated $115 million for NG9-1-1, which is not enough to ensure NG9-1-1 upgrades for all PSAPs and dispatch centers.

Pre-FirstNet

It should be noted that in an ideal world Congress would have enabled both NG9-1-1 and FirstNet as both are very important for the public safety community. The reality of the situation during the time the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) was discussing how to move forward with Congress and other federal agencies was that even some within the 9-1-1 community were actually opposing giving public safety the additional 10 MHz of 700-MHz spectrum known as the “D”-Block. This, of course, did not sit well with those who were working diligently to convince Congress to act on providing both the spectrum and the funding.

We tried to involve the 9-1-1 community in our activities. When I was vice-chairman of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) broadband committee, we tried to meet with the committee at APCO that was charged with 9-1-1 activities. This was met with silence for the most part, and after several attempts we stopped trying. Today the broadband committee no longer exists and APCO International has turned more and more toward PSAP and dispatch activities. These people are important to the overall way incidents are handled and many people owe their lives to the direction they received from a PSAP operator while waiting for paramedics, police, or a fire department to arrive. Even so, I think APCO is being short-sighted today as their founding members and those who helped build the organization came from both the dispatch and the radio communications sectors.

Today several APCO chapters hold combined monthly meetings with the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and there are rumors the two organizations might become one in the near future. The sad part of this, for me, is that after thirty years of membership in APCO, its focus on outward communications, that is, from the PSAP and dispatch centers to the first responders, is almost non- existent. So today there is really no one organization focused on end-to-end solutions that NG9-1-1, FirstNet, and Land Mobile Radio (LMR) bring to the public safety community.

When the final bill was signed into law in February 2012, FirstNet was formed, and a small part of the overall cost for FirstNet was to be provided by future spectrum auctions. As mentioned, NG9-1-1 received only a token amount of funding. Because of this, and because many states are still diverting funds collected for 9-1-1, and the fact that the NG9-1-1 community has not arrived at a standard for NG9-1-1 implementation, FirstNet has been deployed in many places where NG9-1-1 has not.

In reality, both NG9-1-1 and FirstNet are all about broadband services and should be deployed hand-in-hand. However, AT&T is funding FirstNet as the partner for FirstNet the Authority, but NG9-1-1 funding is still in short supply. Where NG9-1-1 has been installed, the model appears to be working. A citizen can still dial 9-1-1 and talk to a PSAP operator, which is still the preferred way to report an incident, but text messages can be sent when a person needs help but is, for example, hiding from an intruder in a closet and does not want to make noise. In places where NG9-1-1 has been installed, the public has been exposed to notices about when to use voice and when to use text.

We are all heading for the goal of citizens being able to reach a PSAP with voice, text, pictures, and video. Then the PSAP and dispatchers can put out a voice dispatch on the LMR systems as they do now, send an alert and details over FirstNet, and follow that up with any pictures or videos that have been received. Many agencies are also able to provide video from a camera in the area and forward that to responding units as well. The capabilities of NG9-1-1, LMR, and FirstNet all provide better response to incidents with more pertinent information, hopefully preparing first responders for what they will find on the scene.

Another advantage to a properly designed and implemented NG9-1-1 system is that the PSAP can be replicated to a portable computer or computers in the field, and the traffic for a PSAP can also be routed to a nearby PSAP as has happened in recent major storm situations. NG9-1-1 systems need to be based on common standards so one PSAP can pick up incoming calls from a PSAP that is out of operation. Redundancy is important and so is having another PSAP to assist during overloaded calling times or when a PSAP is out of action. NG9-1-1 is intended to make that easy to accomplish.

Moving Ahead

It seems a lot of great things are being done to assist public safety in doing their jobs more effectively and safer but some of the pieces are not fitting together the way they need to in order to provide public safety with an end-to-end solution that can handle voice, text, pictures, data, and of course, social media inputs to the system and provide those responding with voice, data, pictures, and videos of the incident as they are en route.

When I was working as a part-time dispatcher at KGA-905, the Delaware County, PA, police radio system, there was a single dispatcher on duty. We had no computer screen or data access, but we did know or learn how to anticipate what else might be needed on the call. Do we start a tow truck and/or ambulance to the incident or wait? All we had to base these decisions on was the incoming voice call until the first responders arrived at the incident. Today we have more tools and ways of knowing what might be needed and when. In the future, when NG9-1-1, FirstNet, and yes, LMR radio systems are working in concert with each other, those responding will have more information available and those sitting in dispatch centers will be better prepared to send the right type of assistance as soon as it is requested.

Looking back, it is a shame FirstNet and NG9-1-1 were not both funded, and that NG9-1-1 was an after-thought for Congress, but as more NG9-1-1 systems come online, FirstNet becomes more robust, and LMR continues to be relevant and an important part of public safety communications, we need to find ways to work together integrating all the different pieces and parts so we can provide our first responders with as much information as they need, when they need it.

Winding Down

When I look back at previous Advocate articles, I quickly come up with a list of additional pieces that need to be added to the puzzle. There is push-to-talk over LMR bridged to FirstNet, a major missing link, and better coverage in rural areas with more cooperation with others trying to cover rural and poverty areas with broadband, another missing link. In question is the fate of the T-Band for eleven major metro areas that could lose most if not all of their LMR spectrum, and the FCC is trying to recast both our 4.9-GHz band and 6-GHz microwave bands. So not only do we have missing links inside the public safety communications envelope, people are trying to squeeze that envelope tighter by doing away with spectrum that today is saving both property and lives.

There are other missing links as well. I am not sure how we can prioritize and address all of them, but I am hoping some of the new organizations and new leadership will result in the creation of a road map and a way forward. It is imperative to assign priorities to these and other missing links and include them in the concept of an advanced, modern communications network that encompasses all that is needed to position the appropriate responders in the right place at the right time.

Andrew M. Seybold
©2018 Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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