Directions Magazine (DM): Next Generation 9-1-1 may still be a new concept to many. Can you provide a quick definition of it?
Jerry Steenson (JS): Next Generation 9-1-1 is the result of an ongoing attempt by the public safety community to bring 9-1-1 technology more in line with current capabilities. The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) has been instrumental in standards development for this emerging technology.
One big change is that the system that determines where a 9-1-1 caller is, and who should respond, will be driven directly by GIS data, which is now true in only a limited fashion. The fact that about 3/4 of all emergency calls are now placed from cell phones makes this an essential move.
Another big change with Next-Gen is that 9-1-1 calls and emergency service dispatch, instead of relying on the analog phone network, will begin to be Internet Protocol (IP)-based. Among other things, this means that emergency calls will be able to be placed by many devices, not just telephones. In theory, at some point in the not too distant future, you might be able to make a 9-1-1 call from your Xbox. Also, the IP-based nature of this system will eventually allow 9-1-1 to better take advantage of digital technologies by doing things like including live pictures with 9-1-1 calls, allowing dispatchers and responders to see what is happening at an emergency before they arrive to more accurately determine which type of response is required before units are dispatched.
DM: What are the biggest challenges to implementing Next-Gen 9-1-1 in your opinion?
JS: First, there will be major upgrades to existing hardware and technology. Legacy equipment that has sometimes been in place for 20 years or more will need to be replaced with entire new systems. In the current economic environment, many localities will find themselves hard-pressed for funding to accomplish these upgrades, though there are some incremental solutions being offered that might help with this issue.
I see the second biggest issue to be that GIS will become a much more critical part of the operating environment for 9-1-1, since the way a caller is located and the determination of who will respond is entirely a function of GIS data in Next-Gen. Most jurisdictions have adopted GIS data into their operations over recent years. But, the role of GIS has been as a supporting piece, not as a key component of the system. This change will require major rethinking of how GIS data is collected and managed for most 9-1-1 agencies. Frequently, a close partnership with whoever currently manages this data (for instance, the assessor’s office) will need to be developed, and solid long-term policies and procedures created and implemented.
DM: Your new consultancy is focused on getting organizations up and running using the Next-Gen data. What sort of organizations will you support? What kind of "updates" will they need to make?
JS: Much of the real work in 9-1-1 GIS data will increasingly fall on local jurisdictions that have historically been the data’s primary custodians. But, because of the extreme importance that will be placed on accuracy in GIS data, in some places the 9-1-1 authority itself will decide to manage the GIS data on its own. So, on one hand, people like the staff of city and county GIS departments, or assessor’s offices, will need to be brought up to speed on the unique requirements of managing GIS data for 9-1-1. On the other hand, agencies that are traditionally more focused on law enforcement will need to take on new roles as GIS data managers. I’ve worked extensively in the past with both of these groups, and can help them develop standards and practices, as well as assist them in understanding each other’s needs.
For the first group, the non-emergency services groups, the main update will be in developing standards and practices for the newly required data layers. A second focus for these people will be to incorporate the need for timeliness which is generally more of a priority for public safety than, say, for tax assessment. The 9-1-1 agencies will frequently need to broaden their perspectives to accommodate the infrastructure, technology and personnel requirements of a professional GIS department.
DM: Will you continue to work with the Esri platform? Are others becoming popular in 9-1-1? How about open source?
JS: It still goes without saying that Esri is a huge player in GIS. Largely because of that, my background is strongest in its technologies, and I’ll continue to primarily work with Esri. But, that doesn’t rule out working with other platforms when a client has invested, or wants to invest, in them. In Next-Gen 9-1-1, vendors producing the various spatial validation and routing components have developed solutions using a variety of database platforms, including both commercial and open source databases. The data in these will be provisioned from the customer’s GIS, so it will not be uncommon to see data managed with Esri products, but feeding servers (“functions” in Next-Gen jargon) that are storing and accessing the spatial data in a completely different format, and on dissimilar platforms.
In working with many different agencies, I find it is still true that they are still most comfortable with Esri technology. But it’s also true that there is now less resistance to the use of other platforms, including open source technologies, than there once was. This is reflected, for instance, in the Federal Geographic Data Committee’s (FGDC) recently released addressing data standard, where extensive use of spatial SQL, including functions specific to PostGIS and PostgreSQL, are used. I mention this because the FGDC standard is likely to be important, as it serves well to augment the GIS standards that NENA has created in support of Next-Gen.
DM: Will any of the "new" technologies/methods of data capture (LiDAR, 360 imagery capture, oblique imagery, StreetView, crowdsourcing, etc.) be used to enhance 9-1-1 databases? Is that something you intend to support in your work?
JS: As I mentioned earlier, one of the big changes coming with Next-Gen is the ability to pull in a wide variety of data. So really, all of the technologies you mention are likely candidates for use with Next-Gen. And I should point out that some of these technologies are already in use in many jurisdictions. Oblique imagery, for example, is already quite popular in 9-1-1. Other sources are also available. Mashups including diverse data such as weather radar, StreetView and traffic cameras, for instance, can already be used with some systems. Next-Gen will make such technologies more accessible and prevalent. On the down side, a concern being mentioned is that dispatchers and responders could be subjected to information overload because of all these data sources. This is where thoughtful system design will be critical to success. Letting the dispatcher or responder decide which data is best for a given situation is an important consideration, and if done well, will lead to improved outcomes.