MCP Insights

Key Takeaways from NENA’s NG9-1-1 Standards & Best Practices Conference

Posted on February 16, 2024 by Glenn Bischoff

Recently, Mission Critical Partners’ subject-matter experts Bonnie Maney, Sherri Griffith Powell, and Gordon Vanauken participated in the NG9-1-1 Standards & Best Practices Conference presented by the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). The following are their most important observations from this event.

NENA’s staffing tool is being refreshed – The Communications Center Staffing Tool is being updated. Though still widely used and effective, the tool was created about two decades ago and since then much has changed regarding the 911 community’s operating environment. “We have so much more insight now into what affects staffing,” Maney says. “This is long overdue.”

Until the update is complete, MCP’s subject-matter experts will continue to adjust the current tool as needed to help clients address their staffing needs in today’s environment. “Every emergency communications center (ECC) is different, and we understand the unique nuances of every situation, which enables us to apply the tool effectively,” Maney says.

911/988 interaction takes a step forward — NENA is working to develop an American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard that will guide the interaction of the 911 system with the 988 system, i.e., the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. (NENA is an ANSI-accredited, standards-development organization.) The effort is collaborative, driven by a working group that consists of about 124 members drawn from both the 911 and 988 communities. (Note: not every member participates in every working group call.)

A draft of the standard has been distributed for comment. It is designed as a starting point for public-safety agencies that might be interested in interacting with the 988 system—which went live in July 2022—but aren’t sure where to begin. Many mental-health and 911 professionals believe that the 988 and 911 systems working in concert will create a powerful, holistic approach to local crisis response. A second version of the NENA standard is already being planned.

Questions abound regarding artificial intelligence (AI) — There’s a lot of buzz about AI right now, but also a lot of questions, as evidenced by the dialogue heard at the conference. Indeed, some are wondering whether the right questions are being asked.

It seems generally accepted that AI will have a place in emergency response someday, but what that will look like is anybody’s guess right now. However, numerous use cases already are being contemplated, including:

  • Using AI to direct nonemergency calls to other resources, e.g., a 311 line, to free telecommunicators to handle 911 calls. An AI-driven chatbot could provide the necessary assistance that nonemergency calls require.
  • The transcription capabilities of AI solutions being developed for the public-safety sector are expected to enable ECC supervisors to better assess telecommunicator performance to improve quality assurance.
  • AI solutions can analyze enormous amounts of data, so they possibly can be used to determine why a telecommunicator’s call-handling times have been increasing. This would enable ECC officials to address the cause(s), further enhancing quality assurance.
  • AI solutions possibly could “listen” to a 911 call, via natural language processing, and determine—by analyzing tone, cadence, breathing and other voice attributes—the stress levels of telecommunicators. In addition, a solution could recognize certain “trigger” words that indicate a telecommunicator might require a proactive intervention by a supervisor.
  • AI-driven augmented reality (AR) is being discussed. Though the development of AR for the public-safety sector is at a very nascent stage, the idea is to “overlay virtual images onto a person's real-world field of vision in a way that enhances the ability to accomplish a wide variety of tasks and assignments,” according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with enhanced situational awareness at the top of the list. Every football fan is very familiar with the concept—it’s how television networks superimpose the “line to gain” for a first down onto the field.

“Last year, NENA launched the ‘future think’ special-interest committee, which is brainstorming many of these concepts,” Vanauken says. “The goal is to determine which ones are important enough to start a working group to develop a standard.”

Because the 911 community is risk adverse—and for good reason, as lives are on the line in any emergency response—AI solutions will need to be proven reliable before they gain any traction. That will require innovative ECCs to test applications that emerge to ensure their viability. “As confidence increases, so will acceptance,” Vanauken says.

He added that thought is being given to technology that the next generation of telecommunicators might embrace. “One thing being discussed is whether a telecommunicator outfitted with a video-game-style controller could do all of their dispatching with it,” Vanauken says.

Similarly, it was learned during the conference that one agency has outfitted its telecommunicators with thumb-driven keyboards because the younger generations can text faster than they can type.

Emergency-notification systems are getting a fresh look — The standard that governs emergency-notification systems, first ratified a decade ago, is being updated to consider modern approaches, such as hosted systems. But Vanauken, who is part of the effort, says the committee needs help. “We need people to step up,” he says. “This is true of virtually every NENA committee, especially the technical committees. To create effective standards, we need more people involved from all aspects of the industry, i.e., emergency communications centers, 911 authorities, and vendors. Because NENA is ANSI-accredited, every committee needs balance between users, producers, and general-interest entities.”

Interoperability along international borders continues to be an issue — Emergency calls that occur along borders often must be transferred from one ECC to another. This is an issue along county and state borders; however, interoperability is being tested and implemented using myriad approaches. But calls that occur along the Canadian and Mexican borders are another matter altogether, which was a prime topic of conversation during the conference.

“Interoperability is virtually nonexistent along the borders,” Griffith Powell says. “The situation is such that one of our clients in Arizona, when it needs to transfer a call to an ECC in Mexico, has resorted to using WhatsApp as a workaround.” (WhatsApp is a mobile instant-messaging and voice-over-Internet Protocol [IP] service.)

NENA’s i3 Standard for Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) addresses interoperability between disparate Emergency Services IP Networks (ESInets)—which are used to deliver emergency calls to an ECC in the NG911 environment—through “forest guides.” Forest guides are hierarchical routing databases that enable call transfers between disparate ESInets; they are functional elements in the i3 standard. So, the solution to achieving international interoperability seems to rest in having each country—the U.S., Canada, and Mexico—establish national forest guides and perhaps regional guides as well.

But a big challenge, according to Griffith Powell, is that Mexico hasn’t deployed ESInets yet. For that matter, many ECCs in the U.S. also have not deployed them. Further, getting the call to an ECC across an international border is only half of the challenge. The other half concerns whether the receiving center’s software can properly format the address associated with the call.

“For example, the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system in the U.S. might not be able to process and display a Canadian address because the format is so different,” Griffith Powell says. “That’s why calls for international conformance testing have been increasing.”

Glenn Bischoff is MCP’s content specialist and the former editor-in-chief of Urgent Communications.

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