State preparing for switchover to Next Generation 9-1-1
“There’s more technology in your purse than put a man on the moon.”
The power of that same technology in the phone in your pocket or purse will soon transform 9-1-1 emergency systems statewide into a technology-laden interoperable system with the same whistles and bells, according to Kelli Merriweather (pictured), executive director of the Commission on State Emergency Communications (CSEC).
Merriweather said the implementation of Next Generation 911 (NG9-1-1) will be implemented statewide over the next several years. NG9-1-1 will transition the current analog 9-1-1 emergency communications system to digital, Internet protocol (IP)-based technology, she said.
The CSEC is charged with overseeing and funding 9-1-1 in 215 of the state’s 254 counties through regional Councils of Government. Merriweather said revenue to fund the various projects comes from fees and surcharges Texans find on their monthly telephone bills.
The switchover to IP technology will connect regions of Texas, something that is not available now. First responders throughout the state will have interoperability and 9-1-1 systems statewide will be able to exchange data and interpret shared data.
Merriweather pointed to some of the differences between the current 9-1-1 system and the NG9-1-1. For starters, the current system is among the “dinosaurs” of technology – analog-based technology that is difficult to adapt to today’s ever-changing technology.
“The current systems used for 9-1-1 service are outdated,” she said. “Many are 25 years old and older. They are so old that telephone companies that provide the current infrastructure are planning to decommission the old technology.”
The current systems primarily support only voice communication and have limited data capability, providing only the phone number and physical location of the caller.
On the other hand, NG9-1-1 uses IP technology and wireless mobile technology. It is adaptable to new technology, supports multiple operating systems, has both voice and data capability and accepts text, photos, videos and crash notification data such as from OnStar. Most importantly, NG9-1-1 has the capability to share data with other emergency service providers and responders.
Other advantages are that it provides long-distance access and during emergencies, allows 9-1-1 calls to roll from one region to another – such as during a hurricane when emergency 9-1-1 calls can be received in other areas if systems in areas affected by the storm are down or additional assistance is needed. It is fully interoperable with other like systems and will enhance the ability to provide information from the public to first responders including local law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services, State and National Guard and homeland security officials.
The goal of the switchover to the IP-based technology, said the CSEC executive director, is “to be able to take advantage of the technology people carry around in their purses or their pockets.” NG9-1-1 will allow for additional incoming information than just location and phone number. With the addition of capability for voice, text, photos and videos, “the 9-1-1 call-taker can receive and provide the additional information directly to first responders,” said Merriweather.
This next big initiative of the CSEC is likely to cost $33 million for implementation over the next five years. The CSEC has been allocated $7 million toward those costs for the current biennium and has requested an additional $7 million for the next biennium in its Legislative Appropriations Request in advance of the 2015 84th Texas Legislature convening.
The revenue from the 9-1-1 fee and a supplemental equalization surcharge charged per phone line goes directly into the state treasury, said Merriweather, with the funds General Revenue-dedicated. The current 9-1-1 fee revenues are expected to total about $123 million at the end of FY 2015, according to the CSEC official, and there is an additional $43 million in the account from the supplemental surcharge. The $7 million for the current biennium and the like amount sought for the upcoming biennium both are allocated from that $166 million. But, once installed, there will also be recurring maintenance and operations costs that run in the millions of dollars each year.
The switch to the IP technology-based system is being implemented in phases. Merriweather said the initial phase currently under way involves procurement of the beginning elements of the network. What folllows will be connecting the first answering systems, which should occur within a year. The build-out will then continue until the system is installed statewide.
Merriweather said possible roadblocks to the implementation of the NG-1-1 system would be if the 9-1-1 community did not fully embrace the system, but she added that the initiative has widespread support among emergency officials statewide. A more critical roadblock, said the CSEC official, would be if there is not “consistent and predictable” funding.