Officials at the Carlsbad Police Department’s 911 communications center monitor incoming emergency calls. The center recently upgraded their equipment in preparation for Next Generation 911. Photo by Shelli DeRobertis

Communication center makes preparations for Next Generation 911

CARLSBAD — The Carlsbad Police Department’s 911 communications center gave its emergency system an overhaul, making it ready to accept videos, pictures and texts from callers once telephone service in statewide emergency call centers is changed from analog to digital.It may be another five years before people are reporting emergencies face-to-face with an operator using smart phone technology, but the Next Generation 911, or NG911, is in the works and will someday become the standard.“We made sure we’re in place to make sure we’re ready to go with whatever is established,” said Joan Mabrouk, Carlsbad Police communications manager.

“The 911 system was built in the 1950s on the premise that everyone’s going to have a phone in their house,” she said. “Now, there’s a huge need for 911 communities.”

Carlsbad needed to replace an outdated system that was no longer being manufactured, which made it difficult to find parts for, said Tom Gable, spokesman for AT&T’s San Diego region.

He said the city’s 911 communications center now has the fastest technology in the county, and is equipped with AT&T’s new 4G LTE.

The 4G LTE became available to county residents in January, and is an ultra fast broadband up to 10 times faster than the 3G for streaming video and data.

When Plain Old Telephone Service is replaced, the nation’s Public Safety Answering Points, which are emergency call centers or PSAP, will accept photos and real-time videos.

“As a result, Carlsbad invested in the Next Gen system and it will be compatible with California when it rolls out its new technology statewide,” Gable said.

A prototype is under way for use with California’s five pilot projects that will test the NG911 system, and the entire testing period will take place until 2015, according to Christine Lally, a secretary with the California Technology Agency.

“We anticipate statewide implementation to take about 60 months,” she said in a written statement.
On the federal level, government took action in September 2011 and facilitated the framework for NG911 deployment.

“We’re telling the public, ‘Here’s our proposal,’” said Lauren Kravetz, spokeswoman for FCC Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.

But Carlsbad is ready, and the cost of between $250,000 and $300,00 for their new system is supported in part from a 911 surcharge, according to Mabrouk.

A Washington-based association of 911 professionals called NENA (National Emergency Number Association), has been working with its members in transitioning to the NG911.

About 70 to 80 percent of all calls made to 911 are from mobile devices, said Trey Forgety, government affairs director for NENA.

He said that the ever-increasing number of mobile device users are changing the way people communicate, yet the only way to place a 911 call is by a voice telephone call.

“Even if you could send text to 911, your average call center would have no way to receive that,” he said.

He said that at best, when someone calls 911 from their cell phone, geographical coordinates are available to the operator, but not an address, and the caller’s location may show up as a small circle if mapping is used in the call center.

“We hope to be able one day to have a three-way video call and a sign language interpreter,” Forgety said.

He said the benefit to video is that it will allow an operator to see and hear what is going on in the background.
Another capability the updated 911 call centers will have is for multiple agencies to operate on the same platform, which is a benefit in the event of a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, he said.

“If one (center) goes offline … the calls are easily forwarded,” he said.

Carlsbad will reap those immediate benefits with their NG911 system that includes a backup server.

“We can fix one side while the other is working,” Mabrouk said.

Before the Next Gen 911 was installed in 2011, the previous system was forced to route calls to Oceanside Police if there were technical problems.

“We’d flip a switch and all our calls went to Oceanside,” she said. “And if Oceanside failed, they flipped a switch and calls went to us.”

Just more than a year ago there was a system failure coming into Oceanside’s lines, Mabrouk said, and Carlsbad took their calls for two days.

Although Oceanside still uses Carlsbad as a backup 911 call center, the Oceanside Police Department recently upgraded its system, which is performing well.

Lt. Leonard Mata said that the department does not plan to transition to the NG911 for another five years.

“There’s this huge void between the public and the 911 community,” Mabrouk said. “All this new equipment is framework so that in the future we’ll be able to receive digital information.”

Currently, the call center in Carlsbad receives information on a screen that shows the caller’s address and phone number but only if the caller is using a land line.

“Now we get (cell) phone calls with no address and virtually no information,” she said.
She said they receive the latitude and longitude of the caller’s location, and can plot it with a 95 percent certainty they are within 200 meters of that location.

“But we certainly can’t tell who’s calling,” she said.

Part of the new requirements to cell service providers by the FCC is that the call centers receive the latitude and longitude of the caller. This information must be accurate to within 50 to 300 meters depending upon the type of location technology used, according to the FCC.

Dispatchers can plot a location, but cannot gain such details if the caller is in a building, a car or a house.

If a 911 caller is using a voice transmitted over the Internet phone, an address will show up at the call center — but only the one that is registered as the billing address, Mabrouk said.

But with the advancement of technology, that will eventually become a problem of the past.

1 comment

Mark Fletcher, ENP March 9, 2012 at 6:32 am

Well written, and well researched article on NG911. Good to see people doing their homework on this topic and not just regurgitating the hype. Kudos!

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