April 14, 2015 - 10:35 am
By Rear Admiral (Ret.) David Simpson | Chief, Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau

This week (April 12-18) is National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, when the nation recognizes the dedicated men and women who answer Americans’ calls for help at 911 centers across the country.  These call takers and dispatchers provide the first critical contact for those in need of emergency services.  In the midst of crises, they obtain vital information from callers in order to link them rapidly to police, firefighters, and emergency medical responders – and at times even dispense vital, life-saving information themselves. 

To perform this critical mission, the nation’s telecommunicators need a 911 system that keeps pace with technological advances, particularly as communications networks migrate to Next Generation technologies and consumers embrace smartphones and new communications applications.  New technologies also bring opportunities to improve our 911 system, but they do not lessen the nation’s need for skilled telecommunicators.  Even the best technology cannot replace the essential person-to-person connection offered by a 911 call-taker to a person in need or a dispatcher’s knowledge of the local community that is often critical to timely and effective response.

It is why our focus at the FCC must be on helping telecommunicators secure the technology that will best support them in the challenging work they do and help them do their jobs more effectively.  

We recognize that telecommunicators’ jobs increasingly encompass not only call-taking and dispatch, but also the integration and analysis of multiple sources of information to determine the appropriate response to any given emergency.  In fact, 911 communicators are conducting more analysis, from more information sources, and producing better response results than ever before. This trend will increase as Next Generation 911 ushers in more text, video, and data in addition to traditional voice calls for help. We also recognize that it is state, local, and tribal public safety authorities – not the FCC -- that must make the hard choices regarding how best to manage the cost of providing emergency services while maintaining – and whenever possible, improving -- the effectiveness of those services. 

These choices are made more challenging by the sweeping communications changes that affect all jurisdictions.  Communications networks are shifting from wireline to wireless, from circuit-based to packet-based IP architecture, and from locally-provided to cloud-based services.  Consumers are also increasingly tech-savvy and driving expectations of what technology should be able to do for them, both in everyday use and in emergencies.  These trends require emergency response agencies to consider how to incorporate Next Generation capabilities and functions into their operations, including new media (such as images, video, and text), big data and data analytics, GIS mapping, and targeted alerting.  Equally important, emergency response agencies must consider how to maintain the reliability and security of these new networks, services, and technologies against a variety of threats, ranging from natural disasters to cyber attacks.

Helping state, local, and tribal authorities address these challenges was a key factor in the FCC’s decision to convene the Task Force on Optimal PSAP Architecture, which began its work earlier this year.  Under the leadership of seasoned public safety executives Steve Souder, Director of the Fairfax County, Virginia Department of Public Safety Communications, and Dana Wahlberg, 911 Program Manager for the State of Minnesota, the Task Force brings together Public Safety Answering Point managers and experts from key sectors, including 911 system service providers, communications service providers, technology vendors, and federal, state, tribal and local governmental organizations.  In the next few months, Task Force working groups will develop and present recommendations in three important areas: 

  •      Recommendations for PSAP-specific cybersecurity practices based on the NIST Cybersecurity Framework and other foundational sources.
  •      Recommendations on how PSAPs can improve 911 functionality and cost-effectiveness through consolidated NG911 network architecture design and operation.
  •      Recommendations on resource allocation and budgeting for PSAPs to transition to NG911 and models for sustainable funding of NG911 operations.

These recommendations will serve as important guideposts for 911 authorities to determine the right mix of PSAP infrastructure and architecture improvements to support telecommunicators in the Next Generation 911 era.  They will also assist 911 authorities in making decisions on workforce planning, organization, recruiting, and training of telecommunicators in this evolving environment.     

As we move forward with these initiatives, the celebration of National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week reminds us that in the midst of sweeping change, telecommunicators continue to play an essential and central role in the delivery of public safety services.  We salute these dedicated professionals and look forward to continuing to working with state, local, and tribal public safety authorities to make sure the nation’s 911 system functions at its highest level.