April 22, 2009 By Janet Hamilton
Visit any public safety agency in the United States and you are likely to witness the nation's 911 network struggling to keep pace with citizen expectations and advances in communications technology. Public safety officials agree the move to the next generation of 911 is imperative.
However, as one Florida county learned, the public safety community must overcome many obstacles to successfully migrate to a next-generation 911 (NG911) system. These challenges include the integration of new applications into existing systems, developing new funding models, and addressing deployment and policy issues.
Charlotte County took on those obstacles and moved ahead with a NG911 system. There are two public safety answering points (PSAPs) in the county supporting one sheriff's office, one police department, two fire departments and one medical response agency.
"Charlotte County moved forward with deploying a next-generation 911 network to better safeguard our citizens," said John Davenport, the county's sheriff. "This new network will support traditional 911 operations, while also providing a secure foundation from which new lifesaving capabilities can grow -- something our existing network can't do."
For the past 40 years, 911 operated as an overlay to the nation's public switched telephone network, a circuit-switched network that provided the safe, secure and reliable operating environment that 911 required. New applications and system enhancements were built on this network, including the automatic delivery of callback numbers and locations, and continued improvements to call handling and computer-aided dispatch (CAD) capabilities.
More recently, 911 was required to receive wireless and IP-based 911 calls, forcing the network to provide 911 for communications technologies it wasn't originally designed to support.
"New technologies have put a strain on the network and, in some cases, compromised the level of 911 service we can provide to our citizens," said Sherman Robinson, captain of the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office. "With citizen expectations growing around the ability to send a text message or pictures to 911, or telematics-enabled [a combination of information and communications technology] vehicles to 'call' and transmit data to 911 in an accident, we are entering areas that the current network simply cannot accommodate."
Also, Charlotte County is frequently hit with severe weather. As with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Charlotte County's Hurricane Charley, survivability of the 911 network is essential regardless of Mother Nature's force.
For Charlotte County, a network-based approach to NG911 ensures survivability and addresses enhanced public safety applications like text messaging and dynamic routing of 911 calls during unpredictable emergency events. Rather than solely upgrading customer-premises equipment to IP -- as in some public safety jurisdictions, which limits communicating outside of a 911 center's operational footprint -- Charlotte County officials recognized early on that a network-based approach would be the only way to fully realize NG911's benefits.
Charlotte County has a much broader definition of NG911. The county's new network will access both legacy and new IP-based capabilities.
With a network-based approach to NG911, Charlotte County can receive voice, video, text and data directly into the PSAP's call-handling and CAD terminals over a next-generation, public-safety-class IP network. Once the information is in the network, officials have absolute flexibility to transfer it to other agencies and make it available directly to field units. Plus, the county has eliminated maintenance costs, and the costs and complexity associated with the manual transmission of data from disparate operating environments.
Funding for any government project is always an issue -- now more than ever. Charlotte County's funding challenge was