Late last year, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) expressed his concerns regarding the vulnerability of today’s 911 systems to cyberattacks. He specifically cited a Ben Gurion University research study that said it would be quite easy to infect mobile phones with a bot that would unleash a denial-of-service attack on the 911 system, possibly to the degree that service could be disrupted across an entire state or even a major portion of the nation.
The former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler responded by stating that Next Generation 911 (NG911) systems represent a solution in this regard.
No communications system can be safeguarded completely against cyberattacks—the hackers always seem a half step ahead—and NG911 systems are no exception. However, they do offer the ability to dynamically reroute emergency calls to 911 centers in the next city, county or even the next state, which would mitigate the effect of any cyberattack that would bring local operations to a halt. This ability is lacking in today’s legacy 911 systems.
Reaching a critical limit
The most compelling part of Wheeler’s response was that FCC is “close to the limit” of what it can do to make NG911 service a reality nationwide. He called on Congress to “create national enablers to accelerate the transition to NG911.”
The enablers already exist in the form of the NG911 NOW! Coalition, which consists of leading 911 industry organizations, including
- the Industry Council for Emergency Response Technologies (iCERT),
- the National Association of State 911 Administrators (NASNA), and
- the National Emergency Number Association (NENA)
These organizations work alongside the NG911 Institute and other organizations to move NG911 implementation forward.
The Coalition’s goal is that all 911 centers in all 56 states and territories will have NG911 systems in place, and will have retired all legacy 911 systems, by the end of 2020.
Money is needed to make this goal a reality. A lot of it. This is why Congress must play a critical enabling role. Congress must commit to funding nationwide NG911 implementation. It can be done as demonstrated years ago when it funded nationwide broadband data network deployment.
Additionally, the case can be made that NG911 implementation needs to occur at the same pace with the nationwide broadband data network buildout. One without the other simply doesn’t work as effectively as planned.
Two unified networks that, together, will transform the
public safety industry
The nationwide broadband data network is being implemented so that rich data — such as streaming video and still images— can be transmitted to and from emergency responders at an incident or while en route. Today, bandwidth-intensive data would choke a narrowband network.
Because the nation’s 911 centers largely will be the entities doing the transmitting, they also need broadband-enabled technology in place—and that means NG911.
NG911 technology will enable:
- the pre-planned rerouting of emergency calls to another 911 center when a natural or manmade disaster has rendered a 911 center inoperable, inaccessible or uninhabitable.
- 911 centers to share emergency call data with another, automatically and in real-time
- Text-based communications between emergency callers and 911 centers when a voice call is unsafe or impossible
- Direct access and enhanced capabilities for a 911 center to conference in a sign-language interpreter through video relay.
Clearly, the time is now for NG911. And what our nation’s 911 centers need is for Congress to become its champion and make implementation a national priority. Admittedly, it won’t be easy for Congress to find the money. But that’s exactly what was said more than a decade ago about the nationwide broadband network for first responders. And as Congress ultimately proved, where there is a will, there is a way. Let’s hope that history repeats itself.
Nancy Pollock is a senior consultant for Mission Critical Partners, a public safety communications consulting firm headquartered in Port Matilda, Pennsylvania. She can be reached at email@example.com.