Overall, 2017 was a landmark year for catastrophic natural disasters in the United States, leading to dozens of deaths and revealing weaknesses in emergency response systems. Two regions were hit particularly hard—the Houston, Texas, area where more than 80 people were killed during a hurricane in August, and northern California where wildfires were responsible for more than 40 deaths in October.
These multiday disasters were far-reaching and overwhelming—for both citizens and first responders. During the Houston floods, overloaded 911 dispatch centers led hundreds of people to turn to social media for help, and kayak-paddling citizens pitched in to help rescue efforts. Criticism of emergency response during the California wildfires was swift—evacuation warnings during the rapidly evolving blaze were either delayed or nonexistent, and emergency lines were constantly tied up.
After-action reports by state and local officials are still being conducted, but the emergency communications failures have left citizens, law enforcement, and legislators looking for solutions.
The question of how people can seamlessly use their phones for a myriad of activities yet not use that same technology when calling 911 has been asked for years as mobile devices have become the standard—more than 80 percent of 911 calls are made from wireless devices. There is a mobile-friendly solution—albeit one that has not been widely adopted. Known as Next Generation 911 (NG911), the program is IP-based and would allow citizens to call, text, and send multimedia transmissions to dispatch centers, which would have enhanced response capabilities.
Many of the problems experienced during the Texas and California disasters—especially overloaded phone lines—could be avoided with such a system. NG911's enhanced location capabilities and ability to reroute calls to other dispatch centers would allow for more seamless emergency response, especially during high-volume call times.
While potential for such emergency communications technology improvements has been discussed for almost a decade, there is no federal requirement for dispatch centers to upgrade 911 technology, and it's up to states and localities to implement—and pay for—the new system. Legislation was passed in 2012 that outlines the federal role in helping communities transition to NG911 and calls on the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to coordinate efforts among U.S. federal, state, and local stakeholders. The overarching goal of the legislation is to connect the more than 6,000 independently operating systems in the United States into a nationwide interconnected system with modernized capabilities.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviewed these federal efforts—known as the National 911 Program—and found that key challenges include addressing funding, governance, and interoperability and technology concerns. This year, NHTSA is planning to implement a $115 million grant program and outline a roadmap dictating national-level efforts to encourage NG911 adoption at the state and local levels.
"Collaborating with the appropriate federal agencies to determine federal roles and responsibilities to carry out the roadmap's national-level tasks could reduce barriers to agencies effectively working together to achieve those tasks," the GAO report states. "Furthermore, developing an implementation plan that details how the roadmap's tasks will be achieved would place the National 911 Program in a better position to effectively lead interagency efforts to implement NG911 nationwide."
At the end of the day, however, it's still up to each of the country's almost 6,000 dispatch centers to make the upgrade, if they choose. A U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) congressional report released at the end of 2017 surveyed almost all states on their NG911 implementation efforts, finding that many were taking some steps to pave the way for the upgrades but they face funding challenges.
The FCC report details how dispatch centers are raising money to implement NG911 capabilities—a huge hurdle for localities, experts say. The National 911 Program commissioned a study last year assessing the cost of nationwide NG911 implementation, but it has been under review for months and has not been released publicly. However, some officials estimate it will cost $10 billion to implement across the country.
Officials at each state and locality are taking a different approach to raising money—often a combination of state funding and increased fees for phone subscribers. However, not all money raised so far is dedicated to upgrading 911 services. In 2016, states raised more than $2.7 billion in 911 fees, but only 7 percent of that money was spent on NG911 efforts versus maintaining legacy systems. Additionally, about 5 percent of the money collected was diverted to nonpublic safety uses, the report notes.
Localities also face challenges collecting subscriber fees. It's up to telecommunications companies to collect the fees and give them to the states and localities that have implemented them, but 20 states lack the ability to audit the companies to make sure they are collecting fees from all applicable subscribers. It's a common concern—counties are required to notify telecom companies of the fee increase and trust they will pay up.
One county in Nevada—one of the states that is unable to audit telecom companies—has one of 12 emergency communications systems in the United States that is three generations old. In trying to upgrade its system to NG911, the county implemented an increased subscriber fee in 2016 but has not received the expected amount of money due to sporadic telecom payments. The county expected to collect $150,000 for NG911 by now but has only received about $46,000.
Many localities are waiting for the NHTSA grants to become available, but experts agree that $115 million across almost 6,000 dispatch centers will not go far. In March, representatives of emergency communications organizations requested that Congress consider funding its own grant program for NG911.
"Without significant federal funding, we are concerned that 911 networks across the country, including in rural and urban areas, will not be upgraded quickly and efficiently," the letter notes.
"The grants will not cover it all—there will need to be significant local funding," says Andrew Huddleston, an assistant director at the GAO who worked on the NG911 report. "The grants are there to provide financial assistance—that's why we highlighted funding as a key challenge area for the states, because it can be a significant cost."
Huddleston says he visited several dispatch centers and saw how funding was a challenge for small and large communities alike.
"It can be more challenging for local governments that might have a smaller tax base, and even for larger ones because they have more infrastructure," Huddleston explains. "We visited a fairly large call center in an urban area that would seem like they had more resources than average, but they did talk about how during the transition time they would have to maintain their legacy 911 system as well as bring the NG911 system online—so basically paying for both while they are transitioning. That's hard from a money perspective."
Other challenges to nationwide NG911 implementation include interoperability and technology challenges. Thirteen states have deployed IP networks for local emergency services to use, but most dispatch centers remain on legacy networks, the report notes. An estimated 1,800 centers can receive text messages, but there is no data on how often citizens text instead of call emergency services. One Houston emergency operations center reported that it only received a handful of texts during the height of the floods, compared to tens of thousands of calls and hundreds of posts on social media.
While being NG911, compliant requires a set list of capabilities—securely using additional data for routing and answering calls, processing all types of calls and multimedia, and transferring calls with added data to other call centers or first responders—there are several ways to implement the upgrades. Even if two neighboring states are NG911 compliant, they may not have seamless interoperability if they are using different equipment or software solutions, the GAO report notes.
"The systems are supposed to be all interconnected—if you call one call center and it's overloaded, that call can be transferred to the next center seamlessly, and they can answer the call, so you still get emergency response and not put on hold," Huddleston says. "To be able to do those things you have to have interoperability. There are multiple software solutions that could be employed for NG911, so that's definitely something state and local governments will need to be willing to consider."
An IP-based emergency communications system will have to address cybersecurity challenges as well. The FCC report notes that in 2016, just eleven states and the District of Columbia had spent money on cybersecurity for their dispatch centers. Additionally, the GAO report discusses the federal government's role in assisting dispatch centers in strengthening their cybersecurity when switching to the new system. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a guide outlining cybersecurity risks of NG911 and what centers could do to mitigate them, the report notes.
"We talked about cyber risk because we're moving to an IT system, and that opens potential for different kinds of attacks than you'd have with the traditional 911 system," Huddleston explains.
Indeed, Baltimore's computer-based 911 system experienced outages in March due to a ransomware attack. The program that the city uses automatically populates the caller's location and dispatches the emergency responders closest to the caller, but the attack shut down the system for about 24 hours, requiring call centers to manually dispatch first responders.
Another challenge facing dispatch centers is setting up technology and guidelines for dealing with photos and videos sent through NG911. None of the states that GAO spoke with were processing multimedia through their 911 systems due to concerns related to privacy, liability, and the ability to store and manage the data.
"We highlighted multimedia as a challenge, since one of the intentions of NG911 is to allow not just voice calls but also video or images to be part of what citizens can share when they're trying to contact 911," Huddleston says. "But that creates challenges on the end of the 911 call centers—what do they do with the video? They have protocol for phone calls, but video is a different beast in terms of what to look for if there are privacy concerns."