Consortium Will Address Broadband Demand in Emergency Response

 

 
 
 

Jennifer Doyle | | Tuesday, October 13, 2009


On Aug. 13, the Next Generation Safety Consortium (NGSC) formally announced its formation, bringing together organizations in EMS, 9-1-1, communications, government,medicine, academia, disability rights and the media to address -- from a national level -- access to and use of broadband in emergency response. The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) is spearheading the effort; however, NGSC plans to organize as an independent nonprofit group by year's end. To initially fund the effort, NENA submitted a pending $18.8 million grant proposal on behalf of the consortium to the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

Patrick Halley, director of government affairs for NENA and a spokesman for the NGSC, answered our questions on public safety communications.

What do you hope to achieve by forming the Next Generation Safety Consortium?

When it comes to 9-1-1 centers and public safety agencies, generally speaking, there are available wired broadband networks. We could probably always use more broadband and faster broadband, but the problem is less about access for public safety; the real problem is the demand for it. Our goal with this consortium is to form a national organization of really smart people to look at designing the architecture of a system that takes advantage of broadband technology -- that enables the public to more effectively communicate with us; that enables us to share more information with each other, and to, therefore, create efficiencies and improve the system. Why would we want every state to go down the path of trying to figure out how to do this on their own? Let's get some leading government entities, technology partners and national organizations that have experience in these issues together on the national level to look at system design and demonstrate applications of public safety using broadband technology. Then, we can make that information available to all the states and regions across the country.

How is the NGSC associated with the DOT's Next Generation 9-1-1 (DOT NG9-1-1) Initiative?

NENA is a subcontractor to the prime contractor -- Booz Allen Hamilton -- for the DOT NG9-1-1 project. Many other NGSC members have participated in the project as well, including Texas A&M, Columbia University and several public safety and government organizations that are members and supporters of the consortium.

What is NGSC's vision for broadband deployment and use?

We have to ask, "If broadband was available everywhere, what would make 9-1-1 centers, EMS agencies and public health departments demand it?" Part of it is an education effort -- here's what broadband can mean for public safety.

The beauty of modern broadband technology is that we can share networks. For example, today police and fire departments have their own land mobile radio systems that they use in the field. Today, the 9-1-1 centers and the health departments have their own systems, etc. If we can properly design a system -- which is what the consortium is looking at -- we can take advantage of new and existing broadband networks, whether government-owned or commercial, and utilize those various networks by establishing shared IP backbone networks. We can have the voice, video and data from consumers coming in to 9-1-1 over the network, and that same network can be used by EMS, fire and police to do their radio communications using radio over IP (ROIP), as an example. That network, with security controls, could also be used by hospitals to share large files, such as x-ray images.

Specifically, how can broadband improve 9-1-1?

I want to make clear that the consortium is not just about 9-1-1. Certainly the 9-1-1 system -- which is what NENA is focused on -- is very limited because it's based on older 20th century telephone technology. There's a movement afoot across the country to transition to what we call "next generation 9-1-1," and it's based on IP technology and IP backbone networks, not telephone systems.

Today it's very rare to be able to sendtext messages to 9-1-1. You can't send pictures to 9-1-1, and you can't send video over the current enhanced 9-1-1 (E9-1-1) system. 9-1-1 can't be connected to the cameras in banks or schools, etc. All that data is transmitted over IP networks. Consumers are out there with all these devices, taking pictures, filming video and sharing it at the push of a button with people across the world, but we can't access it with the 9-1-1 system.

Broadband would open the door to telemedicine. For EMS, we want to be able to receive video taken right there by someone at the scene of an accident, share that video with the 9-1-1 center, and send that to the EMS responder out in the field. We'd like to connect the trauma center as well. None of that can happen today, because the 9-1-1 system at the initial point isn't connected to these kinds of networks and capable of receiving that kind of data, and we're not effectively connected to others in the emergency response chain to share that kind of information, whether it be EMS or hospitals or whoever.

How would these backbone IP networks be managed?

We envision regional and state government emergency services IP networks. There has to be some sort of national entity that has the capability to connect all of these networks together so that we can share information across regions and across state lines as necessary. The consortium will look at those issues. What is the technology? What is the architecture? What are the governance issues? Who's allowed to send what information? How do you know if you can trust it if it's coming from an entity that you've never worked with? Security is a major element that has to be addressed. How do you effectively design these networks so that they work all the time and they're secure? This is all fundamentally new. There are complex issues that arise once you start taking advantage of broadband and these modern technologies.

In law enforcement, there's NLETS, the National Law Enforcement Telecommunication System. NLETS has been around for decades. If you're from California and you're pulled over in Maryland, the officer can connect into the California information system. That's because NLETS connects all the state law enforcement networks. It's an older system, and it wasoriginally developed for less sophisticated purposes, but we believe the consortium, ideally, can play that kind of a role as a nongovernmental organization that's the glue that enables these multiple networks to effectively work together. That would, of course, involve serious technology partners, which we'll have to figure out along the way. It's not a small project.

Are you working with any government agencies yet?

Part of our broadband grant application is to provide matching funds. We have in-kind matching from a number of states, such as Minnesota's 9-1-1 department and the Texas Commission on State Emergency Communications. We're also reaching out to the White House, to the Office of Emergency Communications within DHS and to the FCC. We do have some specific state partners in Washington, Texas, Alabama, Connecticut. They are already going down the path of deploying IP backbone networks, and they're very interested in having a national entity like this help them think through how they can best utilize their networks and how they can connect to other networks.

Will the NGSC deploy the physical infrastructure for broadband networks?

This consortium doesn't exist to build networks. What it exists to do is plan so that technology can be effectively used for emergency response. We're not seeking money to deploy infrastructure. We're seeking money to lead a process on system design, to demonstrate some core elements of next-generation emergency response systems.

An example of the type of project we hope to get funded involves the CAD systems that 9-1-1 systems use. There's a cost to hosting these locally in your 9-1-1 center. The rest of the economy is moving toward a model known as "cloud computing." Take Wal-Mart for example; rather than having every single store pay for all the databases and all the servers needed to run their business, what many companies are starting to do is host databases in the network. We're looking at applying this concept to 9-1-1 centers. Let's say you had 100 PSAPs in a state, and each of them hosts the various databases and services that they use locally. Significant cost could be saved if we can demonstrate the ability to host databases and applications in a secure network. We don't intend to do any of this alone. It's working in the private sectorƒobviously security is very important to banks, and banks do everything over IP. We'll bring in technology companies to help us and learn from them.

Wouldn't this open the door to a tremendous amount of research opportunities?

That's one of the reasons we're excited about having the Mayo Clinic, NASEMSO (National Association of State EMS Officials) and the Telemedicine Association participate. The stimulus also includes billions of dollars to work on electronic health records (EHR). In the past, we've worked on the emergency response standard that would try to incorporate information EHRs. With these types of broadband networks, we'd have more data from the 9-1-1 system to share with others, and we can hopefully improve the real-time response with EMS all the way through to the hospitals. There's data being gathered along the way as part of the whole chain of response.

What we're trying to do is think about how we can share these applications, share these networks. We ought to be able to improve response, hopefully lower cost and share data for research purposes. One of the things we specifically said in our application to NTIA was that -- in addition to looking at system design and demonstrating how it would work -- a piece of this will be economics and outcomes research. How is it different? Is it actually saving money? Is it increasing costs? We need to educate ourselves.

For more information on the NGSC, visitwww.nextgensafety.org. For information on funding opportunities available through the NTIA's Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, visit www.ntia.doc.gov/broadbandgrants. Learn more about the NG9-1-1 initiative athttp://www.its.dot.gov/ng911.

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