What is Next Generation 911?

Jerrold Emery is the CAD product manager at Tyler Technologies. The Call sat down with Jerrold to discuss the basics and complexities of Next Generation 911 and how it impacts the public and 9-1-1 call centers.

First, what is Next Generation 911?

That sounds like there should be a simple answer, right? Very broadly, NG 9-1-1 (which is typically what we call Next Generation 911) is an initiative driven by NENA, which is the National Emergency Number Association, aimed at updating 9-1-1 services to accommodate for a growing wireless society.

Basically, it's going to — and already is, in some capacity — allow the public to communicate with 9-1-1 services the way we all communicate with each other now using our mobile phones.

NENA started to talk about NG 9-1-1 in 2000, then in 2003, started to create standards for what this really meant. Seems like that wasn't even that long ago, but it's already closing in on almost 17 years.

What NENA wanted to do then was to update the technology capabilities of public safety answering points — or PSAPs — so that they could support the modern mixed media that all of our smartphones and communication devices are capable of offering.

So in the future, and I can't give a firm date on when that will be, but in the future, PSAPs throughout the country will be able to receive voice, video, text and data sent over IP networks from various communication devices.

It will basically work the same as many people communicate today using their phones with friends and family, only it will be between emergency text call takers and the general public.

So what does Next Generation 911 mean for a community's PSAP?

It's a bit complicated. Each PSAP in every community in every state is at a differently level of readiness for NG 9-1-1. However, every dispatcher and call taker is going to be expected to communicate with those in need of 9-1-1 emergency services in more ways than just voice.

In a way, it is like when we left the world of rotary phones for push button phones, then to phones without buttons at all. This is just a change that reflects how communication has changed and how that impacts all parts of our lives.

Since everyone, or almost everyone, sends text messages now, there is this growing conversation among people wondering if they can send a text to 9-1-1. Or they wonder why they can't send a photo message or a video message or a live stream of a crime happening to 9-1-1.

All of these people will be able to send these types of messages to 9-1-1 and PSAPs will be able to receive these messages, it's just a matter of when. Each PSAP is working independently to become ready for Next Generation 911.

As of now, most PSAPs that are slightly ahead of the game are ready to accept text calls, which is what we are calling text messages in this instance, from the community.

If it's already taken almost 17 years to get to this point, what does the timeframe for Next Generation 911 look like?

So, right now, there are elements of NG 9-1-1 that are available now. Text-to-911 is really the first part of Next Generation 911 that we're seeing. It's what most PSAPs are working toward being able to handle now and in the near future.

The thing that makes all of this difficult to answer with a solid and definitive date is this: NENA is not expected to even fully define Next Generation 911 until 2020. Once it's fully defined, we are still looking at a good seven years from even knowing everything that every PSAP is going to need to do. The only thing we can do is make sure that we have the technology to help them be ready to get there when the time comes.

What's happening now is that the majority of states already report some level of readiness. Does that mean that within these states that all communities have at least text-to-911 capability? No.

The support for Next Generation 911 is rolling out slowly. As of October 2016, fewer than 15% of PSAPs are able to accept text calls.

Tell us what Text-to-911 involves.

Text-to-911 is as simple as it sounds. It means that cell phone users can send and receive text messages to and from 9-1-1 call centers. The common story here with text-to-911 highlights someone calling from a closet saying there is a burglar in the house or some other kind of crime, which would prevent the person from being able to just call 9-1-1.

Does Text-to-9-1-1 work differently than the text messages people send to each other now?

This is where we get a little bit more technical. So, when someone makes a text call to 9-1-1, the text caller will send a text message to emergency services. That text message is then routed by the person's phone provider — which is Verizon, Sprint, or whatever else — through a Text Control Center (TCC) to the appropriate PSAP in the area.

What we've learned through testing is that this entire process takes less than six seconds. That means the messaging goes through, is routed to the correct PSAP for the area in which the message came from, the PSAP handles the text call and responds via text. It's incredible when you think of all the steps that it goes through and that they can respond so quickly.

Do we actually need Text-to-9-1-1 or is it something that is happening as a result of how we all communicate with each other now?

There are so many reasons we need text-to-911 capabilities. To start with, and this is something many in the general public don't even realize, but in the United States, TTY — which means text telephone — services are being phased out. This is the service that helps the deaf and hard of hearing to communicate now via phone to 9-1-1. There are 36 million people in this country that use TTY services now and they are going to need a way to talk to 9-1-1. Text-to-911 is what they will use.

Then there are the real-life scenarios like the person trapped in the closet example. But that's really just the go-to imaginary example that several people use. The real reasons hit a lot closer to home for a lot of people.

For me, the example that impacted me the most was a real-life example where a child used text-to-911 to report that his father was driving a vehicle they were both in and his father was drunk. The child wanted help, but didn't want to get into trouble by calling.

There are other examples like that … For instance, in a domestic abuse situation, the person involved might be uncomfortable being overheard or might even endanger themselves if overheard talking to 9-1-1.

Text-to-911 isn't just for when you can't call, but for when you don't feel comfortable calling.

Another example of this would be passengers in a car with a drunk driver or in a situation with people who are doing drugs. Any situation where an individual wants to call for help, but for whatever reason feels like he or she can't, text-to-911 is there.

Having text as an option makes it so that hesitancy will go away and the correct response will get out to the situation. However, this also means that emergency services may get more text-to-911 calls for non-emergency needs. So, I think it's going to take a fair amount of community education to let the public know when and what to text to emergency services.

Here's what's also great about text-to-911: Text messages aren't as reliant upon a strong cellular signal strength like voice calls. If you go hiking in a remote area and you need help, a text has a better chance of going through than a voice call.

Are people sending texts to 9-1-1 now?

People send text messages to 9-1-1 all the time, but some PSAPs just aren't ready to handle them. There is a handful of things we need to do first to get everything ready for PSAPs to accept these text calls.

To start with, agency policy needs to be created. There needs to be firm guidelines for each PSAP to know exactly what they're going to do with these calls.

Also, there needs to be more training. Since each PSAP will ultimately be in control of how they will handle receiving text messages, training needs to be in place so that dispatchers and call takers know what is expected of them.

Again, from the technical side, because wireless network infrastructure needs updates, the data and application software support necessary to make all of this happen might not be available in a given area.

Community members also need to know how, when and why they should text 9-1-1. There needs to be a great deal of outreach to cover these particular areas.

When Text-to-9-1-1 is ready, will I know if my text was received?

Yes. If you live in an area where texts are being received by your PSAP, then an automated message acknowledging that the text call was received will be sent.

If you live in an area that is not accepting text-to-911 messages, then you will get a bounce back message saying that text-to-911 is not available in your area.

The automated messages will help a lot, especially as people in the community and at dispatch centers get more used to texting capabilities.

Will 9-1-1 know where I am located when I send a text?

Right now, location information that is available when using text-to-911 is evolving. Location information is largely dependent on the wireless provider. That means whatever tower the text caller is closest to will 'respond' with some location information, but it is very coarse and most likely is not a dispatchable location. We're just now seeing more refined location information being provided to PSAPs.

We do know that standards for text calls is continuing to evolve so that eventually all text messages sent to 9-1-1 will include detailed location information. This helps the text call takers to do their job better and helps the person in need of help receive that help faster.

If a PSAP is ready to take on Next Generation 911, especially Text-to-911, what do they need to do next?

What PSAPs are going to need to do next if they haven't already is work with a software provider that can help them be ready for full text-to-911 capabilities. They need to work with software that is capable of taking the text and integrating the information with their computer aided dispatch (CAD) system.

Tyler Technologies' New World text-to-911 functionality integrates directly with CAD. This means text-call takers do not need to work with or learn a third-party system. They can take a text call, attach the information from the text call to a call for service, and when the call is over, they can run post incident CAD reports right from familiar CAD Workstation.

Not having to use a third-party for this functionality is huge. It makes it easier for the users in a PSAP because they'll be able to get the information in and out faster. That means a faster response and a safer community.

Jerrold Emery is the New World CAD product manager for Tyler Technologies. With 20 years of experience, Emery is a public safety software expert committed to creating products that help serve the public and save lives.

Dana Rasmussen is a senior marketing communications specialist for Tyler Technologies. She began her career working with public safety officials as a reporter covering the police beat. She has written about the work of dispatchers, law enforcement officers, fire fighters and the communities they serve.

Case Study Highlights

  • NG-911 is an initiative driven by NENA to update 911 services.
  • NG-911 allows the public to communicate with 911 services using mobile phones.
  • NG-911 will allow users to send mobile texts to 911.

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