By Eddie Reyes, Deputy Chief, Alexandria, Virginia, Police Department
Making the move to an upgraded 9-1-1 system will have powerful benefits for law enforcement.
|Terms to Know|
|ESInet||Emergency Services Internet |
|IP ||Internet Protocol|
|NG9-1-1||Next Generation 9-1-1|
|PSAP||Public Safety Answering Points|
he current 9-1-1 system, on which the U.S. public relies every day, is more than 40 years old. It has largely served both citizens and law enforcement well, but, simply put, the telephony system that supports emergency calls is clearly out-of-date–and sometimes its age can prove disastrous: When Hurricane Katrina hit, some 38 emergency call centers were unable to function during the storm and in its immediate aftermath.
Experts across industries, including those in law enforcement, agree that making the transition to what’s called Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1) isn’t an “if”; it’s a “when.” In 22 years of law enforcement, and having worked on many deployments to implement new technology for law enforcement, the author couldn’t agree more: The time for NG9-1-1 has come, and chiefs of police need to lead the conversation about how best to implement it. Fortunately, more of our colleagues are seeing the way forward: Several states, counties, cities, and rural communities around the United States have begun pilot testing NG9-1-1 programs—for instance, allowing citizens to text 9-1-1 for help rather than call—and a few have even put a new next-generation system in place. Vermont became the first state to implement a state-wide NG9-1-1 system, and, when Hurricane Irene struck in August 2011, its PSAPs were ready and not a single call was lost, even when one call center had to be evacuated.
Unfortunately, in general, law enforcement agencies have not been as quick to act on NG9-1-1 as they should have been. Too many chiefs haven’t taken the lead to be agents of change. Other organizations—especially the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), the Association of Public-Safety Communication Officials (APCO), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), US Department of Transportation, US Department of Homeland Security—Office of Emergency Communications and several others are making progress in facilitating the national migration to NG9-1-1.1 They are doing so because they see the big benefits NG9-1-1 will have for law enforcement and other emergency services providers. Industry partners, too, are creating products, software, and equipment to make this national upgrade possible, easier, and more cost effective. What’s missing is the active participation of law enforcement as a community: Chiefs need to talk about NG9-1-1, understand what it is and what it can do for their agencies in particular, share best practices, and begin the process of upgrading from outdated legacy systems to a new system that can do so much more.
Last year, a working committee of law enforcement leaders convened with the Transportation Safety Advancement Group (TSAG) to look specifically at NG9-1-1 for law enforcement and to talk about both its challenges and benefits.2 In short, the future looks bright, but it requires the active participation of police chiefs to have an NG9-1-1 system that works to meet law enforcement’s particular challenges and maximize the benefits to officers and the communities they serve.
What Is NG9-1-1?
NG9-1-1 is a national effort—everyone will eventually need to make the switch—but it will be executed at the local level (state, county, city, and rural) to migrate away from legacy telephony systems for receiving and processing 9-1-1 calls and dispatching first responders. Most agencies will typically start their NG9-1-1 upgrade by putting in place a new backbone for the system: an infrastructure of what is called an ESInet, or Emergency Services Internet Protocol, which functions a lot like the Internet people use every day.
This “Internet,” though, is specifically designed to support emergency services, and it will eventually make it much easier for officers to get more and better information when they need it most—including text messages, video, photos, and location (GPS) data about incidents, crimes, victims, and perpetrators. The NG9-1-1 system will be much more reliable too, in the event of a natural disaster or other emergency, and it will be able to accept, process, store, and share other data. Because NG9-1-1 operates on a system specially designed for emergency services, it also means that sharing and receiving information from those in fire-rescue, transportation, hospitals, ambulance services, and counterparts in other jurisdictions will be a lot easier once everyone has made the switch.
Where Police Chiefs and Officers Fit In
Law enforcement clearly has a very important place at the table of Next Generation 9-1-1. After all, most PSAPs around the country are run by a police or sheriff’s department. So it will still be police or other law enforcement, as well as other emergency service agencies, who will be dispatched when a 9-1-1 “call” comes in—even if that means the call is actually a text, email, video, or photo received by the PSAP. Even in areas where law enforcement does not operate the local PSAPs, police officers typically respond to the majority of 9-1-1 calls. In Alexandria, Virginia, the police department responds to roughly two-thirds of all the 9-1-1 calls that come in.
Law enforcement agencies are among those that have the most to gain from a well-implemented next-generation system. In a recent report TSAG spelled out some of the most likely benefits for officers, chiefs of police, and other law enforcement officials who make the transition to NG9-1-1. The first, and among the most important, benefit expected is an increase in officer safety.
Picture the following: An officer on patrol intends to perform a traffic stop and, thanks to an upgraded emergency-services system, is automatically sent data showing that the car’s registered owner is a suspected gang member with a violent history. The officer cannot see through the car’s tinted windows, but other officers on patrol and the PSAP can see the suspect vehicle via onboard video and the upgraded emergency services system. Based on this information, the officer treats the stop as a felony traffic stop per department protocol and waits for backup prior to making the stop.
Or, let’s say a liquor store is being robbed at gunpoint. The clerk uses his cellphone video camera to record the thief’s vehicle as it exits the parking lot, and then forwards the video recording to a PSAP, where it’s immediately shared with responding units. The recording is used by investigators to help identify the suspect and later is used as evidence in court. A key benefit of NG9-1-1 is increasing the apprehension and case-closure rate, thanks to the new and high-quality evidence next-generation 9-1-1will allow law enforcement to receive.
Just as important, the public stands to gain greatly from a migration to NG9-1-1, especially underserved communities like the deaf and hearing-impaired, the disabled, and the elderly. Let’s say that a hard-of-hearing senior citizen is at home alone in a wheelchair. She is able to use TTY (teletypewriter) to reach a PSAP operator quickly and efficiently in an emergency, thanks to an NG9-1-1 system. Being able to text to 9-1-1 (rather than call) could save someone in a situation where talking on the phone would endanger the person’s life or the lives of others.
What Is Next?
The possibilities for NG9-1-1 are truly limitless. And, while it can seem overwhelming to take on a new, complex initiative in these difficult economic times, NG9-1-1 is not 20 years in the future; it is here and now. It reflects the way people are already communicating today, so it will enhance law enforcement’s level of communication with the public. NENA, APCO, and TSAG are leading the charge. There’s still plenty of work to be done when it comes to deciding on standards for software and hardware and how the systems will work together, which is why it’s crucial that law enforcement joins—and leads—the conversation now.3
This article was developed in collaboration with Sergeant Dan Dytchkowskyj with the Erie County Sheriff’s Office Division of Police Services, in Buffalo, New York. He is the TSAG stakeholder representative from the National Sheriff’s Association. ♦
1For more information on what NENA and APCO are doing to facilitate the national migration to NG9-1-1, visit www.nena.org and http://apco911.org, respectively.
2Through formal alliances with stakeholder organizations, the Transportation Safety Advancement Group uses its knowledge base and operating resources to promote its technology for public safety objective. With its allied partners, TSAG advances a national dialogue that promotes traveler and operator safety on U.S. roadways. Visit www.tsag-its.org for more information.
3The author recommends reading TSAG’s Next Generation 9-1-1 What’s Next Forum report (http://www.tsag-its.org/projects/nextgen911.php) for a great overview of this topic.
|Eddie Reyes is the deputy chief of the Alexandria Police Department in Alexandria, Virginia. He is also a member of the IACP’s Communications & Technology Committee and former Chair of the IACP Law Enforcement Information Management Section.|
Mark your calendars now and plan to attend the 37th Annual LEIM Training Conference and Technology Exposition, May 21–23, 2013, in Scottsdale, Arizona. Visit http://www.theiacp.org/LEIM in the coming months for more information.
Please cite as:
Eddie Reyes, "Next Generation 9-1-1: What It Is—and Why Police Chiefs Should Care," Technology Talk, The Police Chief 79 (December 2012): 86–87.