911 dials IP technology

Experts say Net technology could help build hardier emergency communications network, if someone would foot the bill.

Last year's hurricanes along the southeastern coast of the United States highlighted how fragile and woefully outdated the emergency communications system in this country has become.

Now some experts who are building and maintaining 911 networks believe that upgrading emergency systems to Internet Protocol technology could make them hardier and more reliable. That is, if someone would step up to pay for it.

"Lots of things went wrong during the natural disasters of 2005," said Rick Jones, operations issues director for the nonprofit group NENA. "It was a wake-up call for the whole country that we aren't diverse enough in our emergency communications system."

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Some think an emergency communications system based on Internet Protocol technology could have alleviated some of the issues following Hurricane Katrina. An IP network would not only let people contact 911 via text messaging, they say, but it would also allow for automatic rerouting of traffic if part of the system went down.

Bottom line:
The IP technology needed to transform old 911 networks into next-generation networks is already available. But politics and squabbling over how to fund such a project will likely delay any wide-scale deployments.

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During and after Hurricane Katrina regular telephone service in several regions throughout the Gulf wasn't working. Many cellular networks also couldn't support voice calls. For thousands of people, the only means of communication was text messaging. But text messaging couldn't be used to contact emergency officials, because current 911 networks use 30-year-old technology that recognizes only voice calls.

Even some people who could access the regular telephone network were still unable to reach 911 operators . In Mississippi, about 30 public safety answering point (PSAP) call centers for answering 911 calls were out of commission for several days, leaving thousands of people without access to emergency operators.

Jones and others believe that a more dynamic emergency communications system based on Internet Protocol technology could have alleviated some of these issues. Jones believes that an IP network would not only allow people to contact 911 via text messaging but it would also allow emergency coordinators to develop contingency plans that could seamlessly reroute traffic to different regions of the country if a massive disaster strikes and the PSAP itself is damaged or workers are forced to evacuate.

A similar plan is commonly used at tech companies that run big server farms. The companies put those farms in different areas so that if one is interrupted by a natural disaster, the others keep going, ensuring that customer service isn't interrupted.

IP technology could also reduce the cost of operating emergency call centers by allowing PSAPs to share resources with other PSAPs in the area as well as with local police and fire departments, Jones said.

For the past several years, IP has increasingly become the technology of choice for communications in a wide array of settings. From corporations to the phone companies themselves that use IP to transfer voice calls overseas, everyone is starting to use IP to carry voice traffic. The trend has even trickled down to consumers, who can subscribe to what's called voice over IP services from companies like Vonage. VoIP lets people use the public Internet to make phone calls.

But because these services are not part of the older telephone infrastructure, they don't inherently support 911 services. The Federal Communications Commission has mandated that companies offering VoIP service that replaces regular phone service retrofit their technology to make sure customers can access enhanced 911 services.

The National Emergency Number Association, or NENA, the nonprofit organization representing local 911 providers, says this is a temporary solution. Though the group is actively helping VoIP

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