September 08, 2011, 11:41 AM — At the 10-year mark of the nation's most devastating terrorist attack -- and one of its biggest disasters of any kind -- the United States is finally getting serious about overhauling its emergency response systems, particularly its workhorse 9-1-1 call centers.
The Federal Communications Commission is pushing Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG 9-1-1) systems, which use Internet standards such as IP to replace analog, voice-centric technology developed more than 40 years ago.
NG 9-1-1 systems are more reliable because they have automatic failover between calls centers. They can accept texts, photos and videos, providing additional multimedia information to help first responders. And they provide improved access for hearing and speech-impaired citizens. For enterprise customers, NG 9-1-1 is better at pinpointing the precise location of emergency calls originating on campus networks.
NG 9-1-1 deployment faces several challenges, including how to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to upgrade the existing patchwork of city, county and state-run 9-1-1 systems.
The biggest obstacles for NG 9-1-1 deployment are "funding and how you deploy it," says Roger Hixson, technical issues director for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). "The deployment approach affects the economics of it and the funds required to do it."
"We're in a gradual transition to NG 9-1-1. [Call centers] run by cities, counties, regions and states will implement different pieces of the technology at different rates," says John Chiaramonte, lead associate with consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton. "Unfortunately, it gets down to money. Funding is one of the biggest challenges facing 9-1-1 authorities."
NG 9-1-1 is geared to be one of the hottest issues in the telecom industry in the months ahead.
In August, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced a five-step action plan for transitioning the nation to NG 9-1-1 services. Steps include completing the standards required to accept photos, video and text along with voice information, creating a governance framework because no single government entity has jurisdiction over 9-1-1 services, and developing funding models for the necessary hardware and software upgrades.