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Bringing 911 to the Next Generation

7/17/2020 9:32:25 AM Allie Arp

In the last two decades, mobile communications has expanded to include text, video, and a myriad of other applications. It makes sense that emergency communications systems such as Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) would expand to adopt the same technologies.

Given their enhanced complexity, as NG911 systems begin to be deployed across the nation it is critical that the various components of the system are interoperable and compatible before they are deployed.  The Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute (CIRI) – a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence at the University of Illinois – has been selected by DHS and the Department of Transportation to engage with NG911 stakeholders to develop a framework and process for testing the interoperability and compatibility of NG911 systems and components.

Walt Magnussen presenting to the House of Representatives at the NG911 hearing.
Walt Magnussen presenting to the House of Representatives at the NG911 hearing.

“With next-generation (emergency systems), the desire is to do more than voice, and that’s a needed change,” said Walt Magnussen, director of the Texas A&M University Internet2 Technology Evaluation Center (ITEC) and principal investigator on the CIRI project. “If I come on the scene of the accident and there’s a person who is hurt, I’d like to be able to use my camera and say this is what’s happening, this is what they’re doing. If there’s an active shooter in the building I could be conveying actual information to the police about what’s happening. There’s a lot that could be done.”

In order to achieve the goals of the project, CIRI researchers must engage extensively with NG911 stakeholders to identify the crucial elements of interoperability and compatibility. They will then work to design a framework and process to efficiently test for those elements of interoperability. Another key aspect of the project is to outline a business model that would ensure that the testing program is both scalable and sustainable and broadly supported by the NG911 vendor community.

“We appreciate the insightful recognition by DHS and DOT of the importance of broad-scale interoperability of NG911 systems  Given the impact of this project on the potential health and safety of our nation’s citizens CIRI is honored to be selected by DHS for this critical project”, said Randy Sandone, executive director of CIRI.  “We believe we have organized a world-class team of researchers to address the challenging demands of the project.”  

Through extensive engagement with the many NG911 stakeholders – including standards bodies, government agencies, owners and operators, equipment and software vendors, and first responders – the CIRI team will identify and compile a list of interfaces that demand interoperability in order to deliver the seamless services required of the envisioned NG911 system.  A testing framework will then be designed to address these interoperability requirements, which will form the basis of the team’s recommendations to DHS and DOT. Based on feedback, the actual implementation and delivery of the test framework would follow in a potential phase two project.

“What this project is designed to do is to look at the interfaces and say, ‘Is vendor A’s product interoperable and compatible with those interfaces?’” said Magnussen “If it demonstrates through testing that it is interoperable and compatible with those interfaces, then you have a 99.9% assurance it will work within the larger system as it should.”

An additional benefit of ensuring interoperability of NG911 components and systems is the ability to connect 911 operations across the country and allow them to communicate with each other. Currently, there are a variety of different vendors, technologies, and systems that don’t allow calls and incidents to be shared across different regions. To make system-wide updates and bring together all the operations together in a seamless system, the group needs to identify all the stakeholders involved with the transition to NG911 and work with them to develop a plan moving forward. This is the first, and one of the largest, hurdles to improving and advancing 911 technology.

A second task of the current project is to consider and outline a scalable and sustainable model for conducting the testing. This model must include a governance and fee structure that will support the needs of the testing facility and that will be broadly supported by the NG911 vendor community.

Stakeholder buy-in is important because updating the infrastructure without the industry support would likely fail, but so far there has been a lot of positive feedback. The United States Congress is considering funding up to $15 billion to get this new technology developed and deployed, but ongoing operational costs would fall to the local operators.  Establishing a robust and scalable process for ensuring interoperability and compatibility of NG911 systems will facilitate a robust and competitive market for such systems – thus enhancing innovation and lowering costs for the municipalities deploying and operating them.