Viewpoint: How to begin moving to next-generation 911

by American City & County Contributor
Apr 11, 2012

Communities can take four steps today toward advanced 911 systems

By Stephen Meer

Our country’s current 911 systems have served communities well for more than four decades and have specific features that cannot be discarded or replaced overnight. However, new communication technology is pushing a shift to next-generation 911 (NG 911) systems with advanced capabilities, and communities can no longer ignore that changes are occurring. The good news is that moving to NG 911 can begin now, and communities can benefit immediately by taking any one of four steps:

  1. Interconnecting public safety answering points (PSAPs) with a secure Internet Protocol (IP) network;
  2. Installing IP-based call processing equipment in PSAPs;
  3. Enhancing geographic information system (GIS) data; or
  4. Implementing enhanced data applications.

NG 911 systems differ from existing 911 systems in that they have been designed to keep pace with the way people communicate today. This includes delivering voice, text, video and enhanced data to the PSAP. But in addition to meeting consumer expectations for communicating with 911, NG 911 helps improve emergency response by giving public safety personnel tools to make more informed decisions, better monitor situations in progress and manage the 911 environment.

There are several ways to begin the transition to NG 911. Vermont began by upgrading to a statewide and secure emergency services Internet Protocol network (ESINet) that connects eight PSAPs, allowing them to transfer emergency calls and data from one PSAP to another. That proved helpful when floods caused by Tropical Storm Irene forced the evacuation and temporary closure of one of the PSAPs last year. Durham, N.C.; Pittsylvania County, Va.; Charlotte County, Fla.; and many other municipalities also have begun deploying an ESINet and putting the pieces in place to support text messaging, mobile phone pictures, video clips and other data services.

Other agencies, like the Miami-Dade Police Department, are moving to NG 911 by deploying Internet Protocol (IP)-based call-processing equipment (CPE) that has advanced call-handling capabilities for incoming wireline, wireless and Internet-based VoIP calls. Washington has deployed a statewide ESInet to connect its PSAPs and will host centralized, IP-based CPE in combination with equipment commercially provided in a secure “cloud.”

NG 911 will place more demands on even the most refined geographic information systems (GIS). Consequently, agencies can prepare themselves for the shift to NG 911 by working on GIS enhancements and data gathering at the level of detail required to support future operations.

Next, PSAPs and other public safety agencies can move toward NG 911 by implementing emergency text messaging and enhanced data applications that improve situational awareness, increase the efficiency and safety of first responders, and provide better service to the public. A number of applications are commercially available today, such as information about gunshots, hazardous material spills and building floor plans.

Done properly, the new 911 infrastructure and services should be phased in over time and include the side-by-side, interoperable use of certain legacy and IP elements. So, while it’s important to get started now, it’s also important to take a measured and practical approach to the transition.

If your 911 center isn’t among those that have already begun to make the transition to NG 911, don’t wait any longer. Whether it’s a secure IP connection, new NG 911-capable call-processing equipment, emergency text messaging, or an enhanced GIS operating environment, find a place to start that makes the most sense for your 911 center, first responders and the citizens you serve. With lives at stake, it’s the right thing to do.

Stephen Meer is cofounder and CTO for Longmont, Colo.-based Intrado Inc. He may be reached at

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