From smart light switches to coffee makers that can brew on command and refrigerators that can detect fire, the Internet of Things has changed everything, including emergency telecommunications.
“I’m not going to buy the refrigerator that can call 911, but what about a fire alarm?” seasoned telecommunications expert Gerald “Jay” English asked during a Monday morning kick-off session for the IWCE 2022 expo in Las Vegas. The exhibition and conference will continue until Thursday.
English, a Navy and Air Force veteran with a background in intelligence, managed emergency telecommunications centers and helped integrate Next Generation 911 (NG911) efforts with the US Department of Commerce, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is its current role.
With the evolution of all technologies over the past few decades, emergency managers rightly consider the ability of their communications systems to keep pace and otherwise connect with disparate operating systems belonging to adjacent departments. .
“Today’s emergency communications center is not yesterday’s PSAP (public safety response point),” English said in his keynote, “NG911: Transformative System Changes for First Nations stakeholders.”
As a demonstration of this evolution, not a single person out of the several dozen present raised their hand when English asked if anyone “had less than three screens in your ECC”. Half raised his hand when he asked if anyone had more than five.
Modern IP-based NG911 systems allow people and components to be located in different places, something that proved successful when the pandemic hit last year. Emerging platforms make interoperability between entirely different systems seamless, bringing adjacent communities together in ways that until now have been impossible.
Beyond the communicative advantages, new telecommunication technologies help communication centers which are increasingly called upon to operate with a limited staff in the face of growing expectations.
“Anyone here working for an overfunded, overstaffed 911 center?” he joked. “The only way not to retire is if I find one.”
But while necessary, the fiscal challenge has been a difficult one for many communities since NG911 was created by Congress about a decade ago. It’s the one that has impeded progress and prevented communities from upgrading legacy systems.
From his experience, English said it’s becoming clear that lawmakers realize “it’s not going to happen at the local level.”
Federal aid is not just the solution for funding. There is utility in NG911 as it extends beyond small towns and county roads. All emergencies start locally, says English. Interoperability of voice and data services is essential as incidents increase.
With the new technology of the NG911, however, the problems of the 21st century have arisen. Primarily, cybersecurity has become a major issue for government organizations of all sizes.
Given this, when organizations consider switching to NG911, “cybersecurity must be paramount,” said English, noting that many communication elements are vulnerable to cyber threats. “Your system has been hacked or it will be hacked. It’s not a question anymore. What a question is ‘how do you defend it?’
To that end, English stressed the importance of ensuring that cyber defense measures are “integrated from the start”.
In recent years, emergency telecommunications centers have become soft targets because many have inadequate cyberinfrastructure and most public safety personnel are not properly trained, English said.
To mitigate the threat, he stressed the importance, along with putting cyber defense measures in place, of preparing in advance with measures such as blocking all non-US traffic and segmenting data networks. .
“We are in the middle of an evolution towards the next generation 911, but it is not a revolution,” he said. “He will have his challenges, monetarily and otherwise. But the (goal) is to foster an environment that can help.