HxGN RADIOPodcast

What is NG911? And How Do Agencies and PSAPs Prepare for It?

In this podcast, we talk to Chris Carter, former NENA Director of PSAP/911 Operations, about what NG911 is. We take a deep dive into the communication technology challenges facing public safety agencies, from citizen expectations and legislative initiatives to how CAD systems are helping NG911 become a reality.

JW:  Hi, and thanks for tuning into Public Safety Now on HxGN Radio. I’m your host John Whitehead, vice president of sales for U.S. Public Safety at Hexagon’s Safety and Infrastructure Division. We’re excited. This is our first public safety podcast that we’re putting out, and the topic is really relevant to today. Times are changing and so is technology. There’s a lot of buzz around this Next Gen 911. Everyone has a different definition or concept of what that is. Well, today we brought Chris Carver in. He’s our new director of sales for U.S. Public Safety here at Hexagon, but formerly he was NENA’s director of PSAP and 911 operations. Prior to working for NENA, he was also director of fire dispatched operations at FDNY, and he’s here, really, to help us understand what Next Gen 911 is, how agencies, PSAPs, call centers can prepare for it, and how we move into the future. So, thanks, Chris. We appreciate your time.

CC:  Well, thank you, John, for having me, and thanks to Hexagon for inviting me to be an early guest on this podcast and especially to have the opportunity to talk about an issue around which there’s a whole lot of interest but unfortunately some misinformation, or some misunderstanding. And that’s certainly going to be the case wherever you have something that’s impacting the entirety of the nation’s 911 community, right?

JW:  Yep.

CC:  There’s 6,000 911 PSAPs. There’s over 150,000 public safety telecommunicators in the United States, and an even larger number of field responders—police, firefighters, EMTs, and the like. And the reality is that the future of 911 affects all of them. It also affects everyone that lives in a community that could ever potentially dial 911.

JW:  Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, what’s funny about this is you and I both come from the public-safety industry, right? We’ve been there at the comms center, and back in the 90s, I remember when the big issue was phase one versus phase two, right? Cellular phones were becoming the big rage. How am I ever going to get phase-two data off of those, right? And I remember all of the angst around the cell-phone issues. And now, you hear this next-gen term, and we’ve been talking about this now for what, probably 10 years?

CC:  Yeah, absolutely, John. And the reality is that this story that you just started is the logical beginning point to understand what NG911 is because it literally is a necessity in a world where 70 or 80% of 911 calls are no longer made from landlines.

JW:  Right.

CC:  For those of you that are listening that are familiar with the way it used be. If you dialed from a land-line phone, us finding where you were from the 911 center wasn’t necessarily the most difficult thing in the world because your phone was registered to an address where you got your bill. But over time, as folks have left their landline phone environments, as they’ve gone to smartphones, as they’ve gone to wireless devices, the reality is that locating those devices and locating where you are in your time of need requires us to change that system. And it’s not just location; it’s all of that information that you have in your hand.

JW:  And that’s what I was going to say, right? So, I think the first thing in our conversation here today is really trying to define what exactly is Next Gen 911, right? I mean, some people look at it to that, what you just said, “I need help finding the device. I need help finding the caller.” But others say, “No, it’s text information coming in. It’s video. It’s pictures.” I mean, maybe it’s something else entirely. So, can we start with that? Can we define what we believe is Next Gen 911?

CC:  Certainly. NG911 is the system of systems that allows modern routing and processing and handling of 911 calls, thereby improving the resiliency and security of the nation’s 911 system. Sorry for the wordy definition, but—

JW:  Yeah, wow. That almost sounds like you were reading Webster’s, right?

CC:  Right. But—

JW:  I mean, that’s it.

CC:  And you can say there wasn’t a piece of paper in front of me.

JW:  Exactly right.

CC:  But the reality is this, is that sometimes, just like when we look at a new house. Well, it may have a new bathtub in it, it may have new doors, it may have new windows, but that’s really the reality of what NG911 is. It isn’t those singular components like text-to-911 or video-to-911 or additional data reporting, or even geospatial call routing or a 100 different other pieces that really make up a new system. It’s really the environment that supports all of that and more, all of that collectively improving the public safety of our communities and the capability of 911 to handle events and incidents in ways that right now are just not possible because of the use of legacy technology.

JW:  Right, because, I mean, if we look at the legacy technology that’s still out there, I mean, even in our personal lives, right? I remember back, talking to my family, and we’re talking about the good old days where we download a song or we would go and we would download a movie or look at something on the Internet and it was, “I’m going to go download this song, and I’ll be back in 15 minutes, whenever that thing gets done downloading.” And now we’re just blazing through these things. So, in our personal lives and in our personal devices, we’re seeing that expectation happen, and I think that expectation’s rolling into the 911 world, right?

CC:  Absolutely. And in fact, the 911 world is the last part of the technology infrastructure that, really, Americans depend on every day. It’s the last part of that to evolve. There’s a series of wonderfully hilarious videos right now on social media where you watch teenagers tasked with dialing a rotary phone.

JW:  Yeah.

CC:  And you watch them, and it just looks like the craziest thing in the entire world. Well, there’s a little bit of sad truth behind that.

JW:  Right.

CC:  911, in most places today, the backbone of it is the same as that rotary phone.

JW:  Yep.

CC:  It’s never been evolved to be able to use the various components of data and, really, technology and databases and other functions that we use for the rest of our phone—

JW:  Right. And I think that that expectation that 911 should be just as fast and just have the same type of connectivity that I have with everyone else in my life, right? If I have an emergency, I should be able to text that to 911 and get that information over. If I want to send a picture, I’d Snapchat my friend. Why can’t I send that type of information over to 911 and have that? And I think that that’s really the technology demand that’s pushing this into Next Gen, right?

CC:  Absolutely. And even beyond expectation, it’s also accessibility. The reality is that just under 40 million Americans are hard of hearing to a point that it impacts their ability to have a voice conversation with 911. That’s 40 million Americans for whom text-to-911 isn’t just a “nice to have,” it’s an “essential to have.” And that’s just one example, but the process of evolving to a Next Generation 911 environment allows us both to meet the expectation but also the accessibility requirements as well as improve the safety of responders, and that’s an important part of this process that’s sometimes missed.

JW:  Yeah, which I’m actually happy about because I remember the days of learning TDD and learning how to speak TDD, if you will, and making sure that you’re putting in and you’re typing that information in, and you’re putting a qualifier at the end that says, “I’m done.” I think it’s nice having this technology in there because it is part of our lives as emergency responders that we can communicate effectively and making sure that the deaf community, for example, has representation when they need assistance, for them to be able to get in there.

CC:  Right. And the nice part about it is, comparing it to the technology you just described, it’s not a separate-but-equal solution that sits over on the corner that sometimes we forget is there.

JW:  It’s never used, yep.

CC:  Text-to-911, especially when it’s integrated effectively into the technology platform that’s used inside the 911 center, is right there in front of you, part of your normal stream of work, part of your normal process, and something you’re familiar with. So, it means you’re going to be better able to operate with it and better able to utilize it. Another example of that—agencies are becoming creative once they evolve to new technologies with solutions that before were just a dream. For example, the state of Indiana—many of the 911 centers there use text as an outbound feature to recontact or reconnect with hang-up 911 callers. Rather than initiating a phone call, they can do the much faster process of initiating an outbound text to say, “Hey, you just dialed 911. You hung up. Is everything okay?” And it starts a conversation that way. So, that speaks to the ability of new technology inside the 911 environment to offer us not just better connectivity to our callers and the public but also to be able to provide a whole other level of service and capability that previously in a voice-centric legacy system of switches and selective-routers-type environment we just weren’t able to do.

JW:  Yeah. And I think the industry needs to, I don’t want to say catch up, but they need to get going with it, right, because I think that there are providers like RapidSOS, for example. This is built into the Apple device. This is built into the Android devices. You get into your Uber and pull up that app, right? There’s this communication that’s already being built in the infrastructure, and making sure that that data has some place to go I think is key.

CC:  Certainly, absolutely. And as technology becomes even more ingrained in the lives of people that carry smartphones and wireless devices, their tolerance, and patience for systems that don’t work diminishes. And even though Uber, for example—it’s not a perfect solution, but it does offer more in many cases than we get now with wireless location and the ability to have information associated with a phone call.

JW:  Yeah. It’s the silly thing speaking to that, right, the term “Uber can find me, why can’t you?” I mean, it’s all relative. It’s all tied together in how that works in emergency services. So, let me change gears here just for a little bit. So, our agencies are always looking for assistance, right? They’re always looking for that guidance, looking for that ability. So, how are federal agencies, maybe legislative initiatives, helping with the Next Gen 911 and giving it the priority that it needs?

CC: Sure. We have a variety of states around the country now that are developing or have already implemented NG911-related efforts. Those can take a variety of forms. They can take a form of legislation. They can take a form of rules and regulations. The state of Utah is one that just passed a rules and regulations set. And what we’re seeing are a variety of other efforts happening at the same time. It’s not just NG911 deployments or technology, but they’re also using this as a moment in the 911 community to take a step back and assess, how are our operations? How are our long-term funding needs going to be met? Do we have the right number of PSAPs? Do we need to examine ways for PSAPs to become better connected? Do we need to examine ways for them to at least become better connected in terms of disasters so that we know that you’re going to be able to get ahold of a call taker anytime you have an emergency, even on the really, really critical days?

JW:  Sure.

CC: So right now, that’s one of the reasons why I would offer that we are at a major turning point in the history of 911 and public-safety communications in the United States, because this change in technology is being leveraged to, really, assess what it is we’re doing holistically and to look at ways we can improve the system. Now, there’s always going to be more work to be done, but this is the time where vendor partners, stakeholders, the 911 centers themselves, and really the public at large can come together to examine, how do we want our 911 system to work, how do we want it to meet our challenges, and what do we need to make sure that 911 is as effective in the next 50 years as it has been during its first 50?

JW:  So, it almost sounds like for the longest time we keep talking about when Next Gen 911 happens, but Next Gen 911 is here.

CC:  Absolutely. In fact, sometimes we’ll write it with the “next” part stricken out because, really, we are there now. Now, not everybody gets there at the same time. That’s one of the challenges of public safety in the United States. We don’t have—and I don’t know if anyone would want one overriding authority to say, “We will all do this right now today”—but the reality is that almost every state is somewhere along the process of modernizing and evolving their 911 delivery system, both technology and operations, forward to meet the modern reality of the 911 system and the demands of the public.

JW:  I love that, removing the “next,” right? I mean, we could get it rolling out, #generation911.

CC: Right.

JW:  We’ll make that happen, Chris. Let’s get that rolling.

CC:  I like it.

JW:  All right, last question for you, and I think this is pretty important. So, this data comes into the call center and we have that. So let’s pretend all those pieces are there. How does the CAD system fit into this mix, because as I’m receiving this into my call center, I’m a call taker, dispatcher, it’s one thing to have it at my fingertips, but how does the CAD help us with that data now that it’s there at the emergency service?

CC:  Certainly. It helps, first—unfortunately, I have to take a step back into your question for just a moment. I have long had nearly allergic reactions to folks that have referred to 911 PSAPs as call centers, and the answer is actually inherent in my answer to your question, which is the reality is that CAD, by offering the single-point integration of a variety of information sources, whether they be by voice call or whether they be by sensor data or video data or text or a variety of other sources, maybe some of which we haven’t even imagined yet, but into a single view of what’s going on inside that community, while allowing for the opportunity to apply things like artificial intelligence and analytics and improve reporting and awareness, really, the CAD in that particular 911 center becomes the hub of not just information and not just response but overall situational awareness and emergency management and a variety of other skill sets that are critical as we look at public-safety infrastructure today and the realities of public safety in 2019 in the United States.

JW:  Good stuff, Chris. And I’m going to have to go back and listen and say, “Apparently, I said call center, so I’m going to have to—“ Oh, twice. Thank you for keeping me straight on that. I’ll get that out of my vocabulary. So, I mean, I just want to give you a big thank you. Welcome to Hexagon. We’re happy to have you here as a director of sales. I want to say thank you to our guest, Chris Carver. For more information about today’s topic, visit us at www.hexagonsafetyinfrastructure.com. Hopefully, you’re going to listen to additional episodes and learn more. You can visit us at hxgnspotlight.com. And thank you for tuning in.