August 7, 2015 - 11:54 am
By Rear Admiral (Ret.) David Simpson | Chief, Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau

America's 911 operations centers are on the front lines in times of crisis, fielding emergency calls and dispatching assistance to those in need. It is critical that 911 call centers - which are busy saving lives each day - have the support needed to effectively and efficiently navigate the technology transitions underway, particularly the move to IP networks and Next Generation 911. Done right, this should vastly improve emergency response. The Task Force on Optimal Public Safety Answering Point Architecture (TFOPA), an expert advisory panel to the FCC, is central to this effort.

Since its inaugural meeting in January, the TFOPA - comprised of state and local public safety leaders, directors of public safety answering points (PSAPs), emergency operations managers, operating service providers, and technology innovators - has set its sights on addressing how PSAPs can best integrate NG911 functionality into their operations. At a meeting last week, the TFOPA provided interim reports indicating good progress made by its working groups, focusing on cybersecurity, NG911 architectures, and allocation of resources. We are looking forward to the final reports and a unified set of recommendations from the TFOPA later this year.

I am optimistic that the TFOPA's work will further the goal - shared by Chairman Wheeler, his fellow Commissioners, and our state and local public safety partners - of timely NG911 implementation throughout the nation. But the challenges are real. As public safety authorities are well aware, adopting new technology for public safety can be a double-edged sword; as state and local authorities leverage more advanced technologies, they also must maintain legacy communications capabilities during a transitional period as the larger commercial communications ecosystem migrates to IP technologies. Maintaining two infrastructures increases cost and the potential for life-threatening outages. The longer the transition takes, the more difficult this challenge becomes as the rest of the commercial communications ecosystem moves on.

Striking the appropriate balance between maintaining the old and implementing the new in PSAP operations is no easy task. We recognize state and local authorities' leadership in this area. To that end, the TFOPA is playing an important role by helping to facilitate development of better options for 911 decision makers - options that will decrease the amount of technical variation between PSAPs, facilitate the development of 911 platform capabilities that take full advantage of cloud-based and other state-of-the-art technologies, and help cost effectively address equipment and cyber requirements so that 911 workforce development and other NG911 implementation challenges do not get left behind. The group is also tackling the tough job of identifying funding options to provide sustainable support.

Some states are leading the charge on this front by coordinating the NG911 implementation efforts of PSAPs within their jurisdictions, implementing programs that will improve PSAP efficiency and effectiveness, and even reaching across borders to coordinate with neighboring states. In other states, however, timely, efficient NG911 implementation is hindered by restrictions on state 911 administrators' power to implement new policies and by governance mechanisms that discourage rather than incentivize coordinated action by individual PSAPs. And of course, all states face challenges in the timely transition to and long-term sustainment of NG911, given limitations on funding and the rapidly changing technological and communications landscape.

To meet these challenges, states and localities must have the tools - financial, operational, and technical - to realize NG911 capabilities in a manner that minimizes cost and risk. For example, investing in a well-executed and timely NG911 transition may reduce the duration and expense of running parallel legacy and NG911 architectures - not to mention the risk of 911 outages caused by multiple interdependent systems.

These are complex issues, but a productive, collaborative dialogue is underway. As Chairman Wheeler has emphasized, the FCC has no higher priority than public safety communications - and we are steadfastly committed to working in partnership with other Federal, state, and local public safety officials as we collectively move to bring the nation's 911 infrastructure into the 21st Century.