By James Careless
As it pushes ahead to NG911 (Next Generation 911) service, the State of Tennessee is building redundancy into this system by choosing FirstNet to provide wireless backup connections to its primary 9-1-1 PSAPs (Public Safety Answering Points). In doing so, Tennessee is ensuring that its citizens can get the NG911 assistance they need when they need it — even if the landlines going into their 115 PSAPs go down for any reason.
To be specific, the AT&T ESInet — ESInet stands for Emergency Services IP Network, the connecting system for NG911 PSAPs — being adopted by Tennessee for their NG911 system is always connected to FirstNet on a constant standby basis. If AT&T ESInet detects a landline service disruption to the state’s primary 9-1-1 call center connections, it will automatically reroute all 9-1-1 calls over the FirstNet network, ensuring they are answered. This means that Tennessee’s 9-1-1- service will stay operational and available to the public no matter what, which is no small feat in today’s world of wild weather.
The decision to provide this level of backup protection to Tennessee 9-1-1 callers was made by the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board (TECB, aka the Board), a self-funded, nine-member board located within the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance. It was created to ensure emergency communications for Tennesseans and provide support to the state’s Emergency Communications Districts (ECDs) in the areas of accountability, management, and operations.
“The TECB is currently modernizing the State’s 9-1-1 infrastructure in order to provide more efficient 9-1-1 services to the citizens of Tennessee,” said TECB Executive Director Curtis Sutton. “This effort, known as NG911, involves the construction and management of a secure and redundant internet protocol network that improves 9-1-1 call delivery and enhances interoperability between ECDs, which will ultimately result in quicker and more reliable deployment of emergency response services.”
It is this process that led to the state’s push towards enhanced redundancy. “The Board issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a new NG911 network in 2022,” said Sutton. “The RFP was specifically designed to allow for a more robust and secure network. It contained over one hundred specific technical requirements, including diverse call path delivery, cyber-security monitoring, and continuity of network operations plans.”
AT&T was ultimately selected as the winner of Tennessee’s NG911 RFP, in large part due to its proposal to connect 9-1-1 call centers redundantly. “Under the contract, each primary 9-1-1 call center will have two redundant physical connections to the NG911 network, as well as a wireless backup connection through AT&T’s FirstNet wireless network — the first such deployment in the nation,” Sutton said. “This new NG911 system will allow the State of Tennessee to continue to be a leader in NG911 technology and will enable the TECB to deliver enhanced technology services, including Text-to-9-1-1 through the NG911 network.”
As futuristic as the AT&T ESInet/FirstNet NG911 sounds, it is already becoming a reality in Tennessee. The Knox County Emergency Communications District activated its AT&T ESInet/FirstNet system in November 2022. If all goes to plan, all Tennessee PSAPs will be using this redundant system by June 2023.
Making this happen is an ambitious undertaking. “Installing a new network is a team effort,” said Sutton. “It takes coordination between AT&T, the local 9-1-1 call center, and their equipment vendors, along with others. With over 130 9-1-1 call centers in the State, scheduling can be difficult. Also, there is often special construction that must be done to run the second fiber path to the call center. Fortunately, AT&T is very experienced in coordinating deployments, and we are well underway in our deployment.”
AT&T is providing training and support during the NG911 deployment, as well as access to a customer management portal where the TECB’s 9-1-1 call takers and managers can log into for assistance or to initiate trouble tickets. “AT&T also provides an executive dashboard that allows our staff to view the health of the local 9-1-1 centers’ connections,” Sutton said. “We are able to see whether a center is using its primary or secondary connection, or whether it has had to switch to its FirstNet wireless connection.”
According to Curtis Sutton, Tennessee’s AT&T ESInet/FirstNet deployment is going to plan with only a few hiccups being encountered. “Our customers report the network works as designed,” he said. “AT&T tests each element during the deployment, both fiber connections as well as the wireless connection.”
His advice for other states moving to NG911? “Consult your customers to determine their needs and invest time in drafting your RFPs,” advised Sutton. “In Tennessee we held a series of town halls across the State with our 9-1-1 professionals. We listened to their current needs and inquired about future features they would like to have in an NG911 network. With the help of some very smart and talented people, we then incorporated that information into the technical requirements of our RFP. In the end, I think the result is a very robust and forward-thinking NG911 network.”