20 Jun Why Do We Need FirstNet If We Have NG911?

By: Jim Dundas

Migrate to NG911Strange as it may sound, I have heard this question asked more than once: “Why do we need FirstNet if we have Next Generation 911” (NG911)? Or the opposite, why do we need NG911 if we are moving to FirstNet? Although not overly pervasive, there is a perception among “some lay folks” that this is a duplication of efforts, and with it, an associated duplication of cost. So, while there is no intent to be critical nor condescending, this is an attempt at clarification.

On June 29, 2015, the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) published a document entitled, FirstNet and Next Generation 911, High-Level Overview of Systems and Functionality, Final Report. That document essentially explained that inbound to the PSAP are calls for service and outbound are dispatch and incident related communications. Figuratively, NG911 is to the left of the PSAP and FirstNet is to the right.

“In general, Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) will receive incoming calls for help via text message, voice call, or other messaging format which may include attached data such as pictures or video. Data calls to the PSAP may also be generated from machines and sensor systems including automatic crash notification (ACN), break‐in alarms, and body health monitors. This data must be accepted and processed by the PSAP. In some cases, all the data received will be transmitted to the first responder without any review or analysis. This may include one or more pictures of a vehicle crash or house fire, and ACN data burst, or a picture of a robbery suspect.”

Next Generation 911 (NG911) and FirstNet

To the Left of the PSAP

NG911 calls from the public are delivered either by landline Centralized Automated Message Accounting Trunks (CAMA), wireless calls with location data, or other originating service provider (OSP). The latter could be System Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) messages, Internet of Things (IoT) signals, Automatic Secure Alarm Protocol (ASAP), or Automatic Collision Notification (ACN) such as GM’s OnStar or Ford’s Sync. Here are a few examples:

1.   Landline 911 calls are processed via the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) and arrive at the correct PSAP (Selective Routing) with the calling number identified (ANI). The PSTN also retrieves from the carriers’ database, the location of the calling phone (ALI).

2.   Wireless 911 calls traverse the carrier’s network, which includes cell towers and other communications infrastructure designed to optimize coverage. Again, ANI arrives with the call. ALI however is produced either by cell tower triangulation or GPS.

3.   SCADA messages could be critical alarm systems, gate or door controls, or camera signals from video surveillance. Take for example an Airport Operations Area (AOA) door. If opened without proper credentialing, the SCADA system transmits an alarm to the security monitoring center or PSAP, creates a CAD incident, delivers views of video cameras covering the area, and displays a map or diagram of the door’s location.

4.   The concept of the Internet of Things is a rapidly evolving technology that in just a few short years will be pervasive. Personal cardiac monitors are essentially IoT devices that when the wearer experiences a dysrhythmia, it notifies the patient’s doctor or health monitoring service that can transmit the EKG to the PSAP and then on to the responding EMS crew.

5.   Telematics or ACN detects a vehicle collision and transmits its signal to a dedicated monitoring center. Telematics can detect speed at point of collision, whether the vehicle has rolled, the GPS location of the vehicle, and other relevant information.

Collectively, the enhancements delivered under the NG911 umbrella are set to dramatically improve 911 services to the community by taking advantage of existing technologies, systems, and services that are available today. By doing so, more essential, relevant, and accurate information is delivered to the PSAP expediting the dispatch of emergency resources and improving overall response time efficiency.

To the Right of the PSAP

The First Responder Network Authority is sponsored by the US Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). It is charged with building and managing a dedicated nationwide IP network for first responders and other emergency services. Transmitting only data in its initial deployment, FirstNet will not replace land mobile radio. Rather it augments LMR by providing the ability to communicate critical data in the form of photos, video, text messages, SCADA and IoT values, and other forms of data centric information.

"When we announced our public-private partnership in March, we committed to begin building this unprecedented network and technology ecosystem for public safety later this year," said Chris Sambar, senior vice president, AT&T – FirstNet. "Later begins now. States, territories and public safety have expressed their desire to move quickly. That's what we're helping to enable today." 

As with the discussion of NG911, what follows are some descriptive use cases that will be accommodated and facilitated by a national public safety broadband system:

1.   Supplying to an Incident Commander an aerial photograph of a wild land fire showing all sides, identifying terrain, and displaying the overall magnitude of the inferno. From this, the IC determines strategy, estimates what resources are needed, and identifies any hazard zones that his/her firefighters may encounter.

2.   Distributing to emergency responders and law enforcement a picture of a missing child, that when combined with an Amber Alerts facilitates a coordinated search with the community’s support, cooperation, and assistance. Other data elements may accompany the photograph: child’s address, name, age, last seen location, and circumstances surrounding the lost child.

3.   Helicopter video of a Hazardous Materials spill streamed to the HazMat commander will allow him/her to identify the hazardous substance, develop strategy and tactics, note area of contamination, identify plume properties, and estimate exposures. Strategic placement of containment and absorption materials, level of protective clothing, and neutralization resources may be identified and planned much sooner than if that data was not available until after arrival on scene. 

4.   The EKG from a personal cardiac monitor may be made available to responding paramedics so that they identify the patient’s cardiac rhythm prior to arrival at bedside. Appropriate therapeutic modalities may be prepared in advance of arrival on scene. In cardiac arrest, this significantly expedites the delivery of necessary medication, but it also determines the need for additional resources if CPR is to be performed.

5.   During the course of a major emergency, cell phone video and text may be relayed to an EOC allowing to see what first responders are seeing. They will no longer have to rely on monitored radio traffic to asses an emergency scene and determine the impact on the community or municipality.

One of the greatest benefits of FirstNet is interoperability. Historically, first responders “played” within their own jurisdictional borders. If outside help was needed, they engaged mutual or automatic aid agreements. Today’s public safety community is less parochial, creating task forces to respond where ever needed, without city or state borders. Recent disasters have shown that if we are to truly achieve a national response system, a wholly interoperable communications system must be available, reliable, and provide the speed and capacity at “public safety grade” quality.

Don’t mistake the convergence of NG911 and FirstNet as a plurality of systems. It is more a continuum connecting the community to the PSAP and the first responders speeding to emergency callers in their time of need.



James Dundas’ career started in Fairfax County, Virginia, where he rose from Firefighter to Battalion Commander with the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, including serving as Fire Communications Manager, where he assisted with the County’s Computer Aided Dispatch and Records Management systems implementations. After retiring from public service, Jim has served as a public safety consultant and industry subject matter expert supporting several organizations, including iXP Corporation, Big Sky, Inc., Northrup Grumman Information Systems, and is now currently with MicroAutomation.


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