America’s 9-1-1 infrastructure is showing cracks, too

Posted Wed, March 1, 2017

Throughout the presidential campaign and now in office, the Trump-Pence team has emphasized the need to boost investment in our country’s critical infrastructure, and to do more to keep Americans safe. The nexus of these priorities is our nation’s 9-1-1 system.

Just like many of our roads and bridges, America’s 9-1-1 system is showing its age. Its capabilities are stretched to the limit, answering more than 650,000 emergency calls each day. But the system requires urgent attention and investment if it is to meet our communities’ needs in the digital age. 

At a time when Americans are using smartphones, broadband Internet, and nifty apps to send staggering amounts of data, texts, photos, and videos, our 9-1-1 systems are still using last-generation, voice-centric technology, with the exception of some centers now capable of receiving text messages. Telecom companies are moving to Internet-Protocol-based networks, and the federal government’s FirstNet authority is developing a wireless broadband network for public safety field responders. But our 9-1-1 centers are becoming the weakest link in the chain, without any national commitment or process in place to modernize them. 

Next week, hundreds of 9-1-1 professionals and policy leaders from across the country are gathered in the nation’s capital to lobby for the vital improvements needed in our 9-1-1 systems. Their message is simple: It is time for policy makers at all levels to come together and accelerate the rollout of Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) technology nationwide.

With NG911 systems, callers will be able to send text messages and transmit photos, videos, and other forms of data to 9-1-1 centers, and call takers will be able to better coordinate responses. For example, a caller could send streaming video from a crime scene, or personal medical data about a deadly allergy – all of which would improve the 9-1-1 center’s ability to assist.

The handling of 9-1-1 calls will be much more efficient as well. In a NG911 system, 9-1-1 professionals will have the ability to transfer calls and associated data to other jurisdictions in the event of disasters, service outages, or misrouted calls. More than just “call centers,” next generation facilities will become integrated operations centers. NG911 also would more effectively withstand cyberattacks, share data with field responders, and locate wireless callers.

However, the nationwide transition to NG911 is proving difficult for several reasons...

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