"911, what’s your emergency?"
If you've ever had to dial 911, the voice on the other end of the line provided some immediate reassurance; someone out there was ready to listen and provide assistance, regardless of the circumstances leading to the call.
I'm also guessing that when you dialed those three digits, it didn’t matter how that call was routed, where the person on the other end was sitting, or how any of the technology behind that call was assembled. All that mattered was that someone, somewhere, picked up the phone and was ready to provide help.
For nearly 50 years, 911 has been the national emergency number for the United States. The system was designed to provide a universal, easy-to-remember number for people to reach police, fire or emergency medical assistance from any phone in any location, without having to look up specific phone numbers.
Communications have evolved rapidly, with cellphones taking over traditional landline phones as the primary means of voice communications. Beyond that, text messaging and video chats have enhanced our ability to communicate without ever dialing a phone number.
When the 911 system was developed, the ways in which we communicate today were inconceivable. The analog technology that traditional 911 systems are built on is simply incapable of supporting text or multimedia messages. Just like your old landline phone can’t send or receive text messages, pictures or videos, neither can traditional 911 systems.
Yet, it’s exactly this kind of messaging that can provide real time visual and detailed information to first responders so they can prepare an appropriate response.
The solution? Next Generation 911, or NG911. Quite simply, it is an Internet Protocol-based network that allows digital information, like photos, videos and text messages, to flow seamlessly from the public to emergency responders through the 911 network.
The goal is to provide an interconnected system of systems for the processing of emergency 911 calls across all statewide systems, with improved 911 service across state borders and the nation.
Creating a Next Generation 911 system is a cumbersome task that requires intense coordination and collaboration at multiple levels of government.
At the lowest level, local jurisdictions must plan together, along with their neighbors across state lines. At the state level, agencies have to coordinate with local jurisdictions, as well as with neighboring states.
Many jurisdictions in FEMA Region III are well on their way to developing a full Next Generation 911 network, but there’s a lot of work left to be done between the smaller local jurisdictions and on cross-border collaboration.
“In the absence of a state 911 program to support and coordinate Next Generation 911, counties in a region may collaborate on a regional deployment, but 911 isn't a standalone service,” said Ev Bailey, director of the National Association of State 911 Administrators. “It is part of a larger emergency communications stakeholder community that includes emergency management, interoperable communications, first responders, communications service providers, and related entities at all levels of government.”
All of the states in Region III participate in the Regional Communications Coordination Working Group, which provides a forum to assess and address the survivability, sustainability, operability, and interoperability of emergency communications systems at all levels. Members include federal, state, and local government officials, police and fire departments, emergency managers, public safety associations, and communications vendors.
This nuanced coordination was a primary topic of discussion at the working group’s most recent meeting in Kearneysville, West Virginia, which I helped coordinate and lead.
“One of the biggest challenges Next Generation 911 faces is stakeholder education and awareness,” Ms. Bailey stated. “[The working groups], by definition, bring together that larger community of emergency communications professionals, providing a valuable venue for an interchange of information and active collaboration and support on issues of mutual concern.”
While not all of the planning and coordination problems between states were solved during the discussion, new opportunities were created, and the working group will continue to promote the discussion, so the new 911 system can take advantage of and become fully integrated into today’s technological advancements.