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Last year's hurricanes along the southeastern coast of the United States highlighted how fragile and woefully outdated the emergency communications system in this country has become.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


What's new:
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.

More stories on E911

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 providers meet the FCC requirements to work with the old system, it says a better solution would be for the emergency networks to start using IP. NENA is already developing new standards and best practices for building these IP-based networks.

"The consensus is that IP enabled networks is where the future is going," said Robert Martin, executive director of NENA. "But we can't just turn on a new network and expect that everyone will be on the same page. The old infrastructure is going to be around for some time."

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, say the experts.

"The money is available to get this project rolling today," Martin said. "The real issue is how politicians choose to prioritize the spending."

Typically, emergency communications networks are controlled and funded by local governments. This system of funding has inevitably left some sparsely populated rural communities with fewer dollars to spend. As a result, there are still some counties in the United States that don't have access to full 911 services. According to NENA, out of a total of 3,100 U.S. counties, about 225 don't have access to enhanced 911 services, which provide location information for callers. And about 121 counties don't have access to even basic 911.

And even though Congress passed the Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act of 1999 (911 Act), which was supposed to encourage and facilitate prompt deployment of seamless communications infrastructure for emergency services, only about 44 percent of the counties are able to provide location and call back number information when a 911 call comes from a cellular phone, according to NENA.

Jones believes that IP technology could actually help these communities become compliant much faster and much more inexpensively than if they deployed older technology, since an IP infrastructure would allow them to share resources with other agencies.

For example, in a rural area a sheriff's department may already have a data network set up that hooks into the state's database that looks up criminal data and car registration information. The same data infrastructure used for law enforcement could also be used to handle emergency 911 calls.

The Metropolitan Emergency Services Board, which manages PSAPs for the seven counties surrounding the St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minn., region, is studying the possibility of using one IP network to link all its 26 PSAPs. Pete Eggimann, director of 911 services for the group, plans to use findings from the study to persuade other local and state agencies to cooperate with a plan to converge all the emergency systems for his region onto a single IP network. But he's already anticipating that he and others lobbying for this change may face some resistance.

"I think some people will buy into it at a conceptual level," Eggimann said. "But the bigger challenge will be figuring out how to fund it. There are so many different state and county agencies involved, with so many different budgets."

Though PSAPs are run by local authorities, the federal government has promised funds to help upgrade networks. In 2004, Congress authorized $250 million per year in federal grants over five years to help fund upgrades to 911 networks. Jones of NENA estimates that upgrading PSAPs in all 3,100 counties throughout the country would cost between $3 billion and $6 billion.

But even though the money has been authorized, not one nickel has actually been allocated to local governments. Congress also established a national policy office to help coordinate emergency communications efforts, but so far that hasn't been funded either. Some informal work has gone on, but there's no paid staff working on the issues, Jones said.

Even with the promise of federal money, Eggimann said, his agency isn't going to wait. "Federal funding would be nice," he said. "But it's unpredictable. Public safety is a local issue, and we're moving forward on our own."