Groups urge 911 improvements

National Emergency Number Association

Advocates for the emergency 911 service said the nation's communication infrastructure is so woefully outdated that it cannot adapt to the increasing public usage of new and emerging communication devices, such as voice over IP.

The Enhanced 911 "system of today is inefficient," said Billy Ragsdale, vice president of InterAct Public Safety Systems. "It needs an overhaul to bring it up to the working state it needs to be to handle the emerging technologies of today."

To that end, National Emergency Number Association (NENA) officials kicked off their Next Generation E911 program today to address the technical, operational and policy issues associated with modernizing the E911 system and integrating new technologies, such as voice over IP, instant messaging, short message service messaging, Wi-Fi, geographic information systems and video.

Already about 200 millions call are made to 911 annually, and about one-third of those are from wireless phones. In many communities, emergency calls from cell phones comprise one-half or more of the total 911 calls. NENA officials estimate that 12 million to 15 million households will be using voice over IP service as either a primary or secondary line by the end of 2008.

Ragsdale, chairman of NENA's technical issues committee, said his group will accelerate the work of standards; focus on the completion of designs, trials, demonstrations and applications for next-generation E911 systems; and increase the involvement of public safety officials.

Rick Jones, who is NENA's operations issues director, said they will also need help from vendors, such as Microsoft, America Online, Intel and others who have studied next-generation communication devices and processes and how people use them. For example, he said, dispatchers are unable to receive photos taken by cell phones that could potentially provide valuable information.

Paying for the upkeep of current systems and incorporating next-generation ones will be another challenge, said Anthony Haynes, executive director of the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board. He said E911 funding nationwide comes from a patchwork of revenue methods, which are largely unreliable and inadequate.

"Just like any other utility — for lack of a better term — whether it's telecommunications or electricity, you have to build for capacity," said Haynes, who leads NENA's regulatory and legislative committee. "That comes at a cost. In meeting those costs, you have to have some form of predictable level of support not only to be able to maintain those operations but to be able to advance those and meet the changes."

Because E911 is a critical component of homeland security, federal officials must also provide guidance and policies aligned with funding that could address the developers build modernized systems that incorporate new and emerging technologies.

Bill McMurray, who is NENA's president, said the 911 industry is at a crossroads, and officials must address funding and training issues for dispatchers, too.

"So this is a drawing together of a whole lot of technologies that we're aware of today," he said. "But equally importantly, we have to set the stage for tomorrow to be able to do whatever, deal with whatever the technologies are that come across tomorrow."

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