By Audrey Fraizer
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a planned series of stories tracking Next Generation 9-1-1 readiness among states.
Eric Parry’s start to the day is fairly routine.
The director of Utah’s 9-1-1 Program arrives at the office and pours a cup of coffee before sitting down in front of the computer on his desk. And once settling in, where does he go first? The Emergency Call Tracking System (ECaTS) report that provides a daily snapshot of 9-1-1 data, of course.
The scheduled report showing up in Parry’s e-mail inbox every morning allows him to analyze and compare data for all 38 Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) in Utah. While reviewing statistics related to call volume, talk time, transfer calls, and speed of answer might not sound as rousing as headline news, it’s a method Parry can use to troubleshoot issues in preparing the state’s transition to Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1).
“We’re essentially at square one,” said Parry, who in July 2013 celebrated his first year in the position. “Like other states—and Utah’s not behind—NG9-1-1 has become the priority, but we have a long way to go.”
The program Parry directs was established in 2005 and although he is a relative newcomer to the state’s Department of Public Safety, he is certainly no Parry-come-lately to 9-1-1 communications. His 40+ years of experience in public safety includes expertise in law enforcement, 9-1-1 implementation, NG9-1-1 feasibility, and PSAP consolidation. As a former consultant for Priority Dispatch Corp.(PDC), based in Salt Lake City, he is a familiar name in the broader 9-1-1 community.
Parry was hired just two months from the date former Manager Bill Jensen retired. The expediency of the decision was exactly what Utah District 11 Rep. Brad Dee was hoping for.
Rep. Dee is in his fifth, two-year term representing Utah’s District 11, and a lifelong resident of Weber County at the northern end of the Wasatch Front. Prior to his election to the state legislature, he was mayor of Washington Terrace and a strong advocate for merging three dispatch centers in Weber and nearby Morgan Counties beneath one roof.
The Weber Area Consolidated Dispatch Center (WACDC) opened in July 2000 and in 2005, a special service district was created, which led to voter approval as a taxing entity.
“As we moved into the future of 9-1-1, I didn’t want to create a myriad of PSAPs, all demanding the same infrastructure,” said Dee, who was at that time chair of the Weber County Emergency Management committee. “I wanted one. We had our share of turf battles, but we were able to get it done.”
The Weber Area Dispatch 911 and Emergency Services District is supported through property taxes and 9-1-1 telephone surcharges, and because of the success of the consolidation, Dee was determined to do the same throughout the state’s system of 9-1-1 centers when elected to his first term in 2002.
In 2004, during that same term, Rep. Dee spearheaded the Utah 9-1-1 Committee—the forerunner of the 9-1-1 Program—as part of a larger package to align and equalize the state’s emergency communications system.
The 2004 legislation led to statewide Phase II infrastructure and, also, raised the existing Enhanced 9-1-1 (E9-1-1) telephone surcharge statewide and created a second, separate surcharge assessed every residential or commercial telephone line. Today, the surcharge is collected on every device that is capable of accessing 9-1-1.
The Utah Tax Commission distributes funds from the existing surcharge (61 cents) on a monthly basis to support PSAP operations. The second surcharge (8 cents) provides grants for PSAPs to update and maintain equipment capable of receiving what is commonly referred to as “Phase II” caller location information from wireless devices (i.e. cell phones), as it was intended.
By 2007, the combined funding put Utah in the envious position of nearly 100% Phase II compliancy. Except for extremely remote areas of the state, PSAPs can identify a caller’s number along with the geographic coordinates of where the caller is located. The majority of 9-1-1 calls can now be directed to the appropriate PSAP, reducing the number of call transfers while, at the same time, coordinating the delivery of emergency services.
The next step is one the public might not notice although altogether vital in meeting public expectations. NG9-1-1 requires a complete infrastructure makeover. The legacy circuit-switched infrastructure in Utah—similar to the other 49 states—does not support newer technologies and applications, and even if it did, the legacy systems are far past their prime. NG9-1-1 will rely on Internet Protocol (IP)-based technology to deliver and process 9-1-1 traffic.
Dee is again taking the lead, chairing a 17-member NG9-1-1 taskforce that “will come up with recommendations” for moving Utah fully into the digital age for emergency communications. The taskforce—comprised of a cross section of law enforcement, communications, and elected officials—is funded for two years. The first meeting was held in June 2013. Recommendations the committee presents to the legislature will include a proposal for finances, he said.
The “big three” items to make the transition, and that’s for every entity, are: an Emergency Services IP network, customer premises equipment (CPE, a PSAP’s terminal end equipment), and NG9-1-1 hardware and software.
“That’s where the costs are,” Parry said. “That’s where the states are having the most trouble because of the amount of revenue needed. It’s a priority the 9-1-1 Program and taskforce are working on.”
While Dee is pleased with the progress Utah has made, complacency is not a word in his 9-1-1 vocabulary.
“We’re a leader in readiness, but nowhere near where we need to be,” he said. “We’re nowhere near where I’d like to be, although I believe we can be at the end of the next five years.”
In Feb. 2013, Utah awarded contracts to several qualified firms submitting bids to build and maintain delivery systems and equipment and to aid in bridging the transition. And while Utah’s E9-1-1 Committee has been able to upgrade most PSAPs to be “NG Ready,” the complete transition is expected to cost more than the anticipated revenues raised from the state’s two surcharges.
In other words, the state can only proceed as the money becomes available.
For example, Salt Lake County received a $37,000 state grant plus another $13,000 in state funding to build a pilot IP network that links landlines and wireless 9-1-1 trunks and creates a platform for NG9-1-1. Salt Lake County’s initiative was the first step in the state and federally funded Greater Wasatch Multi-Node Project to provide IP connectivity to four counties (Davis, Weber, Morgan, and Salt Lake).
Basically, Parry said, the project tested the concept of seamlessly answering calls anywhere on the network, no matter their origination.
“It was a success,” he said. “We are getting through the layers of onion to advance NG9-1-1 statewide.”
The onion, however, could end up having many more layers than even the current host of agencies can predict, and continued advances in technology might make it impossible to ever keep up. At least, that’s one opinion when it comes to meeting the expectations of technology and the public. There are also concerns connected to the whole concept of transition.
Dee acknowledges the apprehension but supports his convictions with the story of a 9-1-1 tape he heard more than a decade ago.
“A woman calling 9-1-1 to get help for her husband couldn’t remember her phone number,” he said. “He was having a heart attack and she couldn’t say where they were. That’s when I realized we needed to do something. Nothing works unless we can deliver timely response to a person in an emergency.”
Parry is confident it will happen, and for good reason.
“People will always have the ability to call 9-1-1, that will never change,” he said. “It’s time we catch up with a wireless society.”