MCP Insights

Key Takeaways from 2023 APCO — Wrap Up

Posted on August 16, 2023 by Glenn Bischoff

Last week, MCP subject-matter experts blanketed the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) conference in Nashville. This final blog of a three-part series wraps up what they learned. Read more key takeaways in last week’s blogs Part 1 and Part 2.

National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA): The NG911 end state requires the development of several essential capabilities — In an educational session that updated attendees on what the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) currently is focused on, Michael Dame, the agency’s Deputy Administrator in the Office of Public Safety Communications, identified four capabilities that are essential for Next Generation 911 (NG911) systems to fulfill their promise. They include:

  • Commonly accepted standards.Next Generation 911 has to have that,” Dame said. “The industry needs to know how to develop the technology and how to make it work properly, so that it meets the requirements of 911 and public-safety professionals.”
  • Training for telecommunicators. “This is really important — not only how to use the technology, but also how the technology is changing their business operations,” Dame said. “Next Generation 911 could revolutionize how telecommunications happen.”
  • The ability to link emergency communications centers (ECCs) nationwide and to deliver seamless, interoperable data-sharing between them in real-time across a wide variety of systems. “This has to be baked into the 911 system and not an over-the-top proprietary solution — it has to be part of the network,” Dame said. “Emergencies and calls for service don’t respect political boundaries on maps. You are doing mutual aid every day and you’re sending multiple jurisdictions, multiple disciplines to calls for service — you need that interoperable data being shared across various systems.” The bottom line is that interoperable data-sharing will lead to enhanced situational awareness, which in turn will lead to improved decision-making and emergency-response outcomes. On this note, Dame called the anticipated eventual integration of NG911 systems with the nationwide public-safety broadband network being built by the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) a “game-changer” due to the bidirectional, real-time data exchange between first responders in ECCs and those in the field once such integrations become a reality.
  • Cybersecurity needs to be a bigger priority. NG911 systems are Internet Protocol (IP) based, and IP has inherent security flaws that easily can be exploited by cyber attackers. Moreover, public-safety agencies, including ECCs, are increasingly being targeted. The good news, according to Dame, is that the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) is already working to develop a “cyber-resilient 911 program” and is engaged with numerous federal partners in doing so, including NIST, the National 911 Program, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). “[We need to] ensure, as you transition to IP networks, that you have the security that you need,” Dame told APCO attendees. “Unfortunately, we’ve started to read too much about ransomware attacks and other denial-of-service attacks that are happening, and we do not want our 911 systems going down as a result of that. It’s a critical infrastructure and the public needs to be able to call 911 when they need it,” Dame said.
  • Enhanced resiliency, reliability, and redundancy. Dame stated that far too often ECCs are taken offline due to a fiber cut or a disaster that makes the center inoperable, inaccessible, or uninhabitable. When that happens, citizens often have no choice but to call 10-digit, nonemergency lines, which Dame believes is unacceptable. “To be honest, when someone is having an emergency and needs to call 911, even if they received that information earlier in the day, they don’t have the time to figure out which 10-digit number they need to call — they just need to be able to call 911.” Fortunately, the IP nature of NG911 systems will enable ECCs to seamlessly transfer their operations to another center in the next town, county, or even state, when something seriously goes awry.

Dame also touched upon the anticipated data tsunami that NG911 systems are expected to generate, which not only could overwhelm telecommunicators but also disturb them greatly in some cases. “You hear concerns that telecommunicators now will see what they hear and some of it will be very traumatic,” he said. Dame added that data analysis “will be huge” for that reason and predicted that some ECCs will create data-analyst positions and/or centers once NG911 arrives to parse videos to determine their situational-awareness value and appropriateness for viewing by telecommunicators.

Is it time to drop the typing test for telecommunicators? — In an educational session led by Dr. Jennifer Harder, FirstNet’s Director of Roadmap Domains, a debate ensued regarding whether the traditional typing test of 40 words per minute — which has been used to screen telecommunicator candidates for decades — should be retired or at least relaxed. The old way of thinking is that telecommunicators need excellent typing skills to input what they hear on an emergency call into the ECC’s computer-aided dispatch system (CAD) quickly and accurately.

But in today’s environment, many telecommunicators don’t type nearly as much as they used to, instead doing most of their work via touchscreens. In fact, the younger generations aren’t using keyboards or traditional typing methods at all anymore — instead, they’re typing with their thumbs on virtual keyboards on their smartphones. “This is a technological challenge we never thought we’d have — nobody’s using keyboards anymore,” said Brian Zierlein, Division Chief of the Boulder County (Colorado) Sheriff’s Office, a session speaker.

Zierlein added that younger candidates who take the traditional typing test often top out at about 30 words a minute — the result is that the agency rejects 50 to 65 percent of its telecommunicator candidates before they even get to the interview stage. This is problematic given the acute staffing shortage that continues to afflict the 911 community.

“Is the 40 words per minute still important?” Zierlein asked. “Is this a metric that we still want to have as a go or no-go to bring someone in to interview?”

An attendee asked whether artificial intelligence (AI) might resolve this challenge, perhaps via a voice-to-text application for telecommunicators. Harder thinks it is possible, but not for quite some time.

“It’s an interesting question and I think it’s something that we’ll see adopted eventually as we get into the more advanced technology for [ECCs],” she said. “[But] I challenge all of you to do this … try to dispatch to Siri. Ask Siri to go to a traffic stop and clear a license plate — the results are a riot. We don’t have the tech yet for public-safety voice to text.”

Speaker: Federal funding for NG911 is “closer than ever” — Mel Maier, APCO’s Executive Director — who will succeed Derek Poarch as the Association’s Chief Executive Officer no later than August 2024 — led a panel discussion that brought attendees up to date on H.R. 3565, the Spectrum Auction Reauthorization Act of 2023. The bill, if enacted, would provide $15 billion in funding to advance NG911 service — which Maier described as the “great leveling” of 911 service nationwide — with the money coming from the auction of electromagnetic spectrum frequency licenses.

Numerous previous attempts at getting NG911-funding legislation through Congress have fallen short of enactment, but Maier — who was a captain with the Oakland County (Michigan) Sheriff’s Office before joining APCO as its Chief Technical Officer last year — believes this time will be different. “Federal funding for Next Generation 911 is closer than ever,” he said. He believes this largely because the bill has bipartisan support and cleared the House Energy and Commerce Committee by a vote of 50-0. “Getting Congress to pass something 50-0 is impossible — but it happened,” he said.

Maier stated that legislators initially balked at the $15 billion amount. “They asked, ‘Would you take 10, would you take 7, would you take 5?’ — because that’s what legislators do — and we said ‘no,’” he said. That position was based in part on the NG911 Cost Study, a joint effort of the National 911 Program and NIST, which estimated that implementing NG911 nationwide would cost between $9.5 and $12.7 billion. Given that the report was published in October 2018 and accounting for inflation, the range in today’s dollars would be $11.6 to $15.5 billion — so, the $15 billion ask seems spot on.

The current bill that is wending through the House contains language that would require interoperability and cybersecurity to be built into the NG911 standards, and not achieved via proprietary, over-the-top solutions. “Will over-the-top solutions be reliable in a crisis?” Maier asked.

A key difference between this bill and its predecessors is that it contains no match requirement. For smaller agencies, “getting a 20 percent to 30 percent match is very difficult,” Maier said.

A 16-member advisory coalition — consisting of representatives from APCO, National Emergency Number Association (NENA), Industry Council for Emergency Response Technologies (iCERT), National Sheriff’s Association (NSA), National Association of State 911 Administrators (NASNA), International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and other stakeholder groups — has been diligently working Capitol Hill to gain support for H.R. 3565. But Maier said a lot more effort is needed and called on the 911 community to engage in grassroots advocacy, starting when Congress is back in session next month.

Speakers: Public safety’s migration to the cloud is “inevitable” — Panelists during an educational session were united in the belief that all public-safety agencies, particularly ECC), eventually will transition to cloud-hosted infrastructure. It was pointed out that pretty much every industry in the world has embraced the cloud — including the banking industry — but not public safety. The advantages of cloud-hosted infrastructure are many. The cloud is scalable, resilient — due to geodiversity — reliable, and accessible 24 x 7. In addition, cloud providers typically have more advanced information technology (IT) and cybersecurity resources and capabilities than most public-safety agencies, particularly ECCs.

There are a few things for agencies to consider before moving to the cloud, the panel said. One is connectivity — the agency would need to develop a diverse connectivity plan with no single point of failure to ensure accessibility to the cloud infrastructure. Another is bandwidth — the agency would need to ensure that it has enough because video takes up a lot of it. Finally, it should not be assumed that moving to the cloud will be less costly than implementing, operating, and maintaining on-premises infrastructure — in fact, the cloud could cost as much as 20 percent more, according to the panel. The good news, however, is that cloud consumption is metered like a utility bill, the panel indicated. That means cloud-related costs likely would be considered an operational expenditure (OPEX) rather than a capital expenditure (CAPEX) — and OPEX money usually is easier to procure and budget for than CAPEX money.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wants to know why z-axis data isn’t resulting in more instances of dispatchable location — David Furth, Deputy Chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, provided a comprehensive rundown of the Commission’s most significant current initiatives. One concerns vertical-axis data, the so-called z-axis, which has represented the Holy Grail for public safety concerning wireless caller location for years.

Locating wireless callers traditionally has been based on the x and y axes (latitude and longitude, respectively). This is enough in most instances, but far less so when the emergency caller is in a multistory structure, e.g., office/apartment building, parking garage, or stadium. Z-axis data would indicate to telecommunicators and field responders where the caller is vertically, within a margin of error, resulting in a much faster location and more lives saved — think of being trapped on the upper floors of a high rise that is burning; you don’t want firefighters searching for you floor by floor.

Today, 80 percent of wireless 911 callers are located via device-based hybrid (DBH) technology, which was developed for Apple and Android smartphones — just six years ago, only about 20 percent of wireless 911 callers were located using DBH. Furth stated that DBH works well in all environments — indoor/outdoor, urban/suburban/rural — pertaining to the x and y axes, according to the FCC’s test data. He added that DBH today generates location data for all three coordinates, including vertical.

Citing the FCC’s first quarter report of 2023 — which is based on data provided by the three national wireless carriers for six designated cities — Furth reported that z-axis data was provided for 4.4 million wireless 911 calls. Despite this, however, a dispatchable location was provided for only 22,549 wireless 911 calls. (The FCC defines dispatchable location as “information [that] includes the street address of the caller and additional information, such as room or floor number, necessary to adequately locate the caller”.)

“The interesting thing here is that we are starting to see a small number of calls where the carriers are using dispatchable location, so that tells you right there that it is technically feasible,” Furth said. “But why is it such a small percentage? That’s something we’re looking at.” He added that dispatchable location for wireless 911 calls is typically generated by home Wi-Fi hotspots.

For all you do, this shoutout is for you — APCO announced its annual awards during the conference. Sincere congratulations to the following:

  • Information Technologist of the Year: Vaughan Nasse, Cobb County (Georgia) Department of Emergency Communications
  • Communications Center Director of the Year: Kelley Cunningham, Eaton County (Michigan) 911
  • Telecommunicator of the Year: Jaclyn Vernon, New Castle County (Delaware) Department of Public Safety, Division of Emergency Communications
  • Trainer of the Year: Bret Batchelor, North Central Texas Emergency Communications District
  • Line Supervisor of the Year: Heather Robinson, Flagler County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office
  • Radio Frequency Technologist of the Year: Peter Jimenez, Orange County (California) Sheriff’s Office
  • Technology in Leadership Award (Small Agency): Village of Melrose Park, Melrose Park, Illinois
  • Technology in Leadership Award (Large Agency): Jeffcom 911, Lakewood, Colorado

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