Program expansion aims to strengthen public safety response points in the face of emerging cyber threats

11/30/2023 9:38:40 AM Fiza Dahra

The security and resilience of emergency communications systems is critical to the health and safety of our people.  Public safety answering points (PSAPs) – otherwise known as 911 call centers – are “life-line” infrastructure systems that receive emergency calls and initiate the dispatch of first responders (police, fire, ambulance/EMT) to the emergency. Access to 911 emergency services can be a matter of life and death.  Unfortunately, in the recent past, PSAPs and other emergency communications systems have been victimized by cyber attacks that have disrupted the systems – preventing the call centers from receiving emergency calls and hampering their ability to respond to life-and-death emergencies. 

The Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute – a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Center of Excellence within the Grainger College of Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) – has been conducting research and development activities aimed at strengthening the security and enhancing the resilience of emergency communications systems and PSAPs in particular.  Through sponsorship and funding from the DHS Science and Technology Directorate Office of University Programs and the DHS Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Emergency Communications Division, CIRI has been developing processes, procedures, and tools to strengthen PSAPs against cyber attacks and to ensure that they remain always able to receive and respond to 911 emergency calls.

CIRI, in partnership with Karthik Consulting, has begun Phase II of a critical project titled "Protecting the Nation's 911 System from Cyber Threats Present and Future." This research, coordinated by Principal Investigator Karthik Balasubramanian, expands upon an earlier project which examined PSAP system architectures and operational policies and procedures in order to develop processes and tools to improve cyber risk management of PSAPs.

The risk of cyber attacks has increased dramatically as 911 services transition to Next Generation 911 (NG911) systems, which rely mainly on Internet Protocol (IP) networks. Recognizing this, the first phase of the project created a NIST Cyber Security Framework (CSF) Profile for Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs), which are critical nodes in the emergency response ecosystem.

This PSAP Profile was integrated into the DHS/CIRI-developed Cyber Secure Dashboard, a tool developed to help enterprises manage their cybersecurity efforts to more efficiently conform to national cybersecurity standards and best practices. Karthik Consulting then used this tool to train several PSAPs to conduct cybersecurity assessments against the requirements of the PSAP Profile and to develop and manage a Plan of Action & Milestones (POA&M) to remediate deficiencies and to achieve the target cybersecurity posture.  Based on the positive response of PSAPs to this program, DHS has funded an expansion to support such engagements with additional PSAPs.

This work demonstrates UIUC's leadership in the field of cybersecurity research and workforce development. CIRI expects this initiative to have a positive impact on how emergency services organizations manage and respond to cyber threats, ultimately contributing to the resilience and reliability of this life-line infrastructure across the country.

The success of this effort is expected to open the way for additional infrastructure resilience research and development, demonstrating UIUC's commitment to addressing some of the most critical concerns in national security and public welfare.