Public Safety Advocate: NG911, More Public-Safety Hall of Fame Nominees

Last week I attended the State of Arizona PSAP/Integration Planning Meeting held in Phoenix. It was well attended and the content was right on target. It is great that Arizona is holding statewide Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) planning sessions where important points are discussed as are keys to a successful implementation of NG911. I hope most other states are holding similar sessions. When the system is complete, ALL Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPS, which we are now asked to call “Emergency Command Centers” or ECCs) will be enabled with NG911 capabilities to receive a variety of input from the public including voice, text, videos, and still pictures, and to share that information with responders in the field.

Simply meeting the criteria or claims from a vendor that its application is compliant with standard “XYZ” are not enough. The ultimate goal is not only to share incoming and field-generated data, but to also be able to hand off that data to other PSAPs without having to subject it to some form of conversion. This would also mean if one PSAP went down, other PSAPs would be able to pick up its calls and continue normal operations. Like FirstNet, NG911 must be a nationwide, fully-interoperable system if it is to handle any and all calls from the public.

I recently attended the APCO NG911 session at the APCO conference in Baltimore and was impressed with its description of NG911. While APCO claimed in the session that its definition had been accepted by public safety, I found out later through a number of conversations that this was not quite true. In fact, it appears some of the major public-safety member organizations have some issues with the wording of the APCO description. Hopefully, public safety will have this sorted out prior to Congress passing bills in the House and Senate. It would not be smart to have pushed bills through Congress without a full public-safety buy-in by the agencies that need the services.

NG911 will cost $billions to deploy nationwide. Congress is looking at $12 billion for the project but some I have talked to who understand the issues better than I believe it will cost even more. Others suggest use of the “cloud” for services could reduce the cost making it more affordable, and helping with system compatibility. Such issues need to be resolved prior to rolling out NG911. Looking back, after FirstNet was created, the Authority spent a great deal of time talking with stakeholders and developing specifications to provide the services public safety needs in the field. The RFP, won by AT&T, seems to have correctly stated these needs. The only add-on, and there will always be add-ons, is that we did not expect voice (push-to-talk) for FirstNet to be held up so long once it became viable. Now Push-To-Talk (PTT) has been introduced into the network and further efforts are focused on interoperability among the various PTT flavors, and for interfacing FirstNet PTT to LMR PTT for large-incident coordination.

When the FirstNet Bill was passed, only a small amount of money was set aside for NG911. Public safety’s push was for the FirstNet network first and foremost. I was part of that effort but hindsight being 20-20, I regret we did not include NG911 in the mix. I don’t think any of us truly grasped how important NG911 is for FirstNet to reliably relay information from the public to first responders as they are dispatched and arrive at an incident. History, even recent history, has shown if we arm our public-safety responders with more information they can apprehend offenders more quickly, take precautions as they report to a situation, and keep the public and themselves safer. Many FirstNet agencies are beginning to use FirstNet for data and video services, but once NG911 is operational, the volume of information flowing over FirstNet will greatly increase and our responders will be better informed, hopefully on every call.

Concerns

There are issues and concerns with every new evolution of technology and this is certainly true with NG911. First among these is how incoming video, pictures, or data will be vetted to ensure, as much as possible, crank calls, requests intended to divert responders, or that involve grudges where one party makes false claims against another are not elevated. Some of these things do occasionally slip through with voice today. I am reminded of many years ago when I was at the Philadelphia Fire Department Dispatch center and such a call was detected. The call was from a young-sounding male who was reporting a fire at a residential location. The dispatcher listened and initiated a minimal response as she was broadcasting the call over the dispatch center PA system for all to monitor and verify that she heard laughter in the background. She was correct, it was a false alarm, and the mother denied her son would ever do such a thing until she heard the recording for herself.

There is a lot to be said for receiving calls via voice that our well-trained PSAP operators can hear before initiating a response. There are many instances where verbal reporting will help save lives, e.g., when a child is found in a pool (too often). When a voice call is placed via 9-1-1, the PSAP operator can assist in the rescue efforts and talk the person through starting CPR while waiting for an EMS team.

NG911 is not intended to replace voice calls, it is intended to augment calls by providing additional details. When someone needs to be quiet because, for example, there is an intruder in the house, and sends a text message to the PSAP, help will be dispatched with the knowledge that there may be an intruder in the house and at least one person is in hiding.

Another concern I have discussed with dispatch personnel is the need to view incoming video. There will be times when ECC personnel would prefer not to see some of the video content, especially when it comes from the field. I once wrote an Advocate in which I suggested that ECCs should hire video experts to vet videos, similar to those who work with ESPN sitting in trucks next to stadiums or in control rooms during broadcasts. These folks demonstrate amazing talents as they switch cameras and change angles during a game or newscast. They could certainly teach us a lot about how to handle and move video from one location to another and to determine how much and which videos or segments to upload.

I was reassured after the Arizona meeting where ECC operators and supervisors spoke about the video viewing issue. They are already developing a mindset for handling video information, vetting it, and seeing that it does not affect their abilities. It was also suggested at this meeting that ECCs may need to hire different types of people or at least train people differently. According to one supervisor, people are hired for their verbal skills, their ability to listen and react, and their ability to operate a console and move calls along in a timely fashion. They are not currently hiring potential ECC operators who are also trained or are able to handle incoming voice, text, video, and pictures. I hope hiring this new group of operators does not slow full adoption of NG911. As it is today, at least in the Phoenix area, ECC dispatch positions remain open far too long, leaving most ECCs short-staffed.

NG911 is the next big thing for public safety. In my recent vision article, I identified NG911 as one of the most important elements still needed to further develop FirstNet and provide better information more quickly to our responders. It is past time to resolve any differences between what APCO believes to be the complete definition of NG911 and what the public-safety community wants and needs. While the APCO document is well done and understands the fully-interoperable part of NG911, it would be beneficial to have full public-safety buy-in before bills are passed.

Winding Down

This week I nominate five more people to our public-safety hall of fame. I will start with Kevin McGinnis, who represented the EMS community with the Public Safety Alliance and went on to become a founding member of the FirstNet Authority board of directors. Kevin often speaks about how FirstNet is transforming EMS responses and care and he has been the guiding inspiration for the EMS community. Next is Bill Schrier, who has done it all. He has served as a police officer, CTO for a large city and a large police department, a member of the Public Safety Alliance, and now works on behalf of the FirstNet Authority traveling the country helping agencies understand how FirstNet serves them. He is also well versed in the Internet of Things (IoT).

Then there isAlan Caldwell, who served with the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), was a founding board member of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), and was active in the Public Safety Alliance. Allan was our guide as we learned how to walk through the tunnels connecting the various House and Senate office buildings, how to catch the tram to the White House, and so much more. Allan knew most of the key players in Congress and helped with our efforts on behalf of FirstNet.

Unfortunately, the next is a posthumous nomination for Tom Sorley. Tom loved Dunkin Donuts coffee and would often bring me a cup in the mornings. More important, he was bright, knowledgeable, always willing to share his wisdom, and a true FirstNet believer. Among his many other services, was on the Public Safety Advisory Council. Tom was a pillar at the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) and took over as chairman of the Public Safety Advisory Council board upon Harlin McEwen’s retirement. When we lost Tom, he was far too young and still had a lot more to give to the public-safety community. He is and will continue to be missed.

In closing is Ed Reynolds, another posthumous nomination. I first met Ed when consulting for BellSouth when he took us on a road tour to show us the company’s hidden antennas. He was a pivotal board member on the FirstNet Authority and brought years of experience to the board.  The last time I saw Ed he was being inducted into the Wireless History Foundation Hall of Fame. Ed will be the second member of the Wireless History Foundation Hall of Fame to be nominated to the public-safety wireless hall of fame with Sue Swenson being the first.

I am still concerned about the fate of the T-band (470-512 MHz). Time is growing short and it appears nothing is moving in Congress. Hopefully, once everyone returns from their vacation in early September, Congress will move forward on both the T-band bill and the NG911 bill.

Until Next Week

Andrew M. Seybold
©2019, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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