Next generation of 911

August 1, 2016

Less than 50 cents. That's the amount the typical phone customer in Oakland County is charged each month to fund emergency 911 services provided by the state and local public safety agencies. However, exactly what services and capabilities are available varies by the location of the call and the type of phone being used.

First used in the late 1960s, the creation of a universal emergency number was initially suggested in 1957 by the National Association of Fire Chiefs. Still, by 1987, only about half of the country had access to 911 call centers, leaving others to keep a list of local emergency numbers handy in the event of a life-threatening situation. In fact, it wasn't until 1999 that a federal mandate was approved making "911" the official emergency code that we use today.

While at least 96 percent of the geographic United States now has access to 911 services, the vast majority of those systems run on telephone technology that is a half-century old. As a result, most 911 systems currently in use aren't able to provide precise locations of callers dialing in from mobile phones, despite a phone's capability to pinpoint its own coordinates. Likewise, newer VoIP telephones, or voice over internet protocol, which uses the internet to place and receive calls, relies on the user to regularly update their location when moved. Further, some multi-line phone systems used by school districts and large companies provide 911 operators with limited location data.

Ultimately, the majority of 911 systems in the country, including those used by the Oakland County Sheriff's Office and local public safety agencies in Birmingham, Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills, and Rochester, were designed to work with traditional copper-based landlines.

"We are talking about 1964 technology that right now we are using to route 911 calls. It's insane," said Mel Maier, chief of emergency management operations for the Oakland County Sheriff's Office.

The Oakland County Sheriff's Office receives more than a half-million calls to its operations center each year, with about half of those coming from people that dialed "9-1-1" on their phones. Countywide, 911 dispatch centers, or public safety answering points (PSAP) as they are referred to by those in the field, received 676,864 calls to 911 in 2014. Of those, 106,088 calls were made on traditional landlines, with 533,149 made from wireless phones and 37,627 from VoIP phones.

"About 86 percent of our calls are from cell phones," Maier said. "It's not like it used to be when everyone had a landline."

Emergency dispatchers have been able to track the location of 911 calls made from traditional landlines for decades through databases that list the address of individual telephone lines. But tracking mobile phones is less precise. While dispatchers are able to determine the location of the cellular tower a phone is using to make a call, as well as the general direction from the tower where the call is made, older 911 systems aren't able to determine latitude and longitude coordinates of a wireless phone. Nor can the systems reveal the caller's elevation.

"It depends on the handset and where the person is. For instance, you could be in the eighth floor of a building, but your location might show up at an intersection," Maier said. "The biggest challenge we have in 911 today is location."

Other challenges older 911 systems face relate to their capabilities to utilize digital information. For instance, none of the current systems used by local public safety agencies are able to accept photos, videos and other information commonly sent and received by modern mobile smart phones. Nationally, only about 10 percent of 911 systems are able to receive text messages – a capability that was implemented by the Oakland County Sheriff's Office in 2015 – including dispatch centers operated by police departments in Birmingham, Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills and Rochester.

Text messages sent to 911 in Oakland County are received by the sheriff's office operations center if a local community doesn't have the capability to receive text messages. The sheriff's office then notifies those departments when a message is received.

"In 2014, we looked around to do something different and developed a text-to-911 solution for the entire county," Maier said. "We had about 1,000 text-to-911 calls in the past year, and about 25 percent of those were emergent calls."

In addition to text capabilities, the sheriff's office is embarking on the implementation of a "Next Generation 911" system that will resolve the shortcomings of the current system. The system will link all 20 dispatch centers in the county by a fiber-optic based, digital system with the ability to receive more descriptive locations and information. The system will also work with the county's Courts and Law Enforcement Management Information System (CLEMIS), allowing digital information to be shared with law enforcement officers on the street at light speed.

The new system comes with an estimated $20 million price tag, which includes the installation of a fiber-optic network, dual back-ups, and hardware and software for each of the 20 dispatch centers in the county. Of the estimated $20 million cost, about $2 million will be funded by local public safety agencies for the purchase of hardware, said Oakland County 911 Administrator Patricia Coates.

"It's a multi-part project. We have to run fiber for connectivity, and put in two different data centers, one on this side of the state and another on the west side of the state. We have two different fiber providers, so that if one of their systems goes down, the other stays up," she said. "The software needs to be upgraded, and the county's GIS (Geographic Information System) needs to be upgraded to feed into the system... Then the recording systems have to be upgraded, which for years was only used for voice, and now it will be video, photos and other data that they haven't had to deal with. And there will be a lot of training.

"A lot of it will be difficult, but it will be a very good system. As old as it is now, it's a very good system, but this will enhance it, and the public will benefit."

Coates said the system is expected to be up and running by the end of 2017. Funding for the new system is part of the 2017-2019 budget just unveiled by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson.

The timeline to implement the new system coincides with federal requirements placed on wireless service providers by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Although the FCC doesn't regulate the nation's 911 systems directly, it does regulate commercial service providers the public uses to contact 911 operators.

"There is no entity that oversees all of the 911 systems. Our regulations apply to the commercial side, the originating side of the call," said Mark Wigfield, deputy director of the office of community relations for the FCC. "We have location accuracy rules that apply to carriers, specifically for wireless."

The rules, which were adopted in 2015 and will be required to go into effect over a series of years, require wireless service providers to meet specific location accuracy benchmarks. Under the rules, all providers must submit by February 3, 2017 their first reports on live 911 call location data to the FCC, the National Emergency Numbers Association, the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials, and National Association of State 911 Administrators. Nationwide providers in February of 2017 must also provide initial plans for implementing indoor location accuracy requirements and progress reports, as well as a privacy and security plan for the National Emergency Address Database.

In 2014, the FCC required wireless service providers to meet certain texting capabilities. Earlier mandates also required wireless providers to transmit all 911 calls, regardless of whether the caller subscribed to the provider's service or not.

The mandates, which were created in conjunction with national organizations representing 911 systems, are part of an effort to upgrade 911 systems across the country to "Next Generation 911" or NG911 systems.

Under the rules, all wireless providers must achieve 50-meter horizontal accuracy or provide dispatchable locations for 40 percent of all wireless 911 calls by April 3, 2017. Accuracy requirements are to be further increased in 2018. The rules will also require service providers to provide vertical, or z-axis, accuracy over several years, which will ensure the ability of Next Generation 911 systems to determine from what floor of a building a call is made.

"Today, the core of the system is the ability to reach 911, before anything else," said Trey Forgety, director of governmental affairs for the National Emergency Numbers Association (NENA), based in Washington, D.C. "In the basic 911 sense, all calls go to a PSAP (answering center). That was a good state of affairs because it was better than what came before. You don't have to have a sticker on a telephone with seven different numbers to dial. As telephone equipment became computerized, that led to 'enhanced 911,' which is the majority today."

Enhanced 911 systems are able to route 911 calls to the appropriate call centers for the caller's location. They also automatically provide operators with general location information of wireless calls and the caller's telephone number, so that an operator can call back if the call is dropped or disconnected.

In the near future, NG911 systems will better utilize location-based services already used in the commercial industry to better locate callers, to include GPS, WiFi access points and Bluetooth beacons, by 2021, as at least 80 percent of the wireless 911 calls are expected to use new technology to deliver locations to 911 systems. The next generation systems will also utilize text, image and video information.

"We may get the latitude and longitude, but it may be a couple football fields off, and that's only for 67 percent of the time. The others may be more off," Oakland County's Coates said. "The FCC hasn't required z-axis information from providers, yet, but that is very important for some places like Troy and Birmingham, which have taller buildings. Often people can't speak or don't know where they are. All we have to go on is a guess, based on coordinates.

"It's sad because if you call and order a pizza, they know exactly where you are. Every delivery service in the world knows exactly where you are, but the 911 systems don't get that. That's the most important thing of going to Next Generation 911."

In addition to location services, NG911 systems will allow for the use of photos and videos. For instance, Coats said wireless callers in the future will be able to send 911 operators a photo or video of a scene, a missing person or suspect, which can then be sent to first responders prior to their arrival at the scene. Or, she said, the system may be able to link up with surveillance systems and provide incident footage in real time.

Paying for the system is yet another hurdle that has to be resolved. Currently, the county receives funding through two surcharges placed on all phones registered in the county. Telephone customers using traditional landlines are charged 22 cents per month for 911 services, which is assessed and retained by their service providers. All wireless customers in the state, with the exception of those using pre-paid phone plans, are assessed a surcharge of 19 cents per month by the state of Michigan. Under state law, a portion of those funds are returned to counties with a qualifying 911 plan in place and are used for 911 services.

Additionally, Oakland County assesses a 28-cent surcharge per month on telephone lines in the county. That fee, which will remain at 28 cents through June of 2017, can be raised to as high as 42 cents per month by a vote of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners.

Coates said the county surcharge is collected by service providers and remitted back to the county to be used for anything directly related to the processing of 911 calls. In total, the county received $1.829 million in state surcharges in 2015, and $3.706 million in county surcharges from service providers. However, Coates said the amount of money received by the providers fluctuates each year, based on the number of customers.

"The providers aren't required to tell us how many customers they have, and they keep that secret because it's a very competitive business," she said. "Large providers like Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon have other providers that use their network, so to say who is using the network and how many there are is confusing. The amount carriers tell us is different every month. Plus, there are people who don't pay their bills, or who don't pay for months, then catch up. There isn't really anything we can do under the current statutes. We can see the history and trends in Oakland County because we have been collecting that for years, but for those counties just now collecting a local surcharge and trying to make a budget, it's impossible."

In addition to the money the county already receives from surcharges, a portion of the state's 19-cent surcharge is retained by the state to provide additional funds for reimbursement of public safety network costs.

The 19 other public safety agencies that will hook into the county's 911 system will be required to upgrade their hardware systems; however, the county will provide software systems to ensure uniformity in the system.

For the Birmingham Police Department, which also provides dispatch and 911 services for Beverly Hills, the cost to upgrade the operations center's current hardware is estimated to cost about $85,000, said Birmingham Police Chief Mark Clemence. The upgrades are to be paid for from the city's general fund as a capital outlay purchase, he said. 

"We have three (computer) stations, and all three will have to be upgraded," he said. "It's been a pretty cooperative relationship with the county. They tell us the amounts we'll have to pay to be on board. The nice part is that we are on the same system and can train together. There are some advantages to it."

With seven full-time and four part-time employees in the Birmingham department's dispatch operations center, training is a necessity that comes with a cost. However, public safety agencies are able to recover a portion of training costs from the state, which allows cities to apply for reimbursement. In 2014, the department received $10,031 from the state's training fund.

In 2015, the department received a total of 43,665 calls for service, including 7,142 calls from wireless phones for 911 service, and 2,338 calls from landlines specifically for 911 service.

Clemence and other local chiefs said dispatchers in the local operations centers do more than answering phones and radioing officers on the street. For instance, employees update internal databases, file criminal warrant information, conduct follow-up calls for officers and other duties beyond dispatching.

"I've been a police officer for 31 years, and the way technology is impacting our jobs, it's amazing to me," Clemence said. "It's all about keeping up with what the public expects from us, but also technology as a whole. It's a struggle."

The Bloomfield Township Police Department received $14,488 in state training funds for 911 services in 2014, according to state records. The department maintains a staff of 13 in the dispatch center, including one supervisor.

Bloomfield Township Police Chief Geof Gaudard said the department receives about 25,000 calls for service each year. He said maintaining its own dispatch center, rather than contracting services with the sheriff's office allows for more personalized services for residents while still utilizing other capabilities offered by the county.

"The advantage is that you have control and can therefore have a level of customer service and professionalism that your community expects. Not to say that you can't have that with the sheriff's office, but we are comfortable having that in-house and having that assurance," Gaudard said. "The NG911, and the ability to get video and that kind of stuff, the sheriff is handling that for all the county, but in the future, we will handle our own. That is coming in the very near future."

Bloomfield Hills Public Safety Chief David Hendrickson said the department's communication center has three full-time employees and four part-time employees, who answered 8,382 calls in 2015. 

The department in 2014 received $10,031 in state training funds.

"Right now, our dispatch center is working well for us, but you never know what the future may bring," Hendrickson said. "It's something we constantly look at. The service model we have may be different than other communities. We pay a lot of attention to our residents and visitors."

Rochester Police Chief Steven Schettenhelm said the department receives between 12,000 and 13,000 calls for service each year and employs five dispatchers. The department in 2014 received $5,573 in state training funds.

"Every year the technology gets better in terms of how its delivered, and we are getting better as time goes forward," he said.

Schettenhelm said by maintaining its own dispatch center, the department is able to offer 24-hour services to residents and visitors.

"We can keep the station open 24 hours, so we have a safe haven where people can come," he said. "It also allows us to staff our own lockup and house people here in the city. If we didn't have (dispatch) here at the station, then we couldn't operate our lock-up without another arrangement. 

“We've been very satisfied. The idea of having and providing our own level of service has been satisfactory, and there's no effort to stop it."

Regardless of whether or not a public safety agency in the county operates their own dispatch and 911 services, all of the departments will benefit from the county's NG911 system when it is implemented. However, the sheriff's office operations center is by far the largest provider of services. 

"I'm very proud of our whole team over there," Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said. "Because it's grown so much, we have upgraded it to a full division. It's about four-times the size of the average police department in America."

In total, the operations center employs more than 70 staff, dispatching for sheriff's deputies and 29 other county and local agencies and communities, including the Rochester Hills substation. In 2014, the office received $62,410 in state training reimbursements.

In terms of overall size, the Michigan State Police department's 911 system is the largest in the state, said Harriet Miller-Brown, state 911 administrator. In addition to operating the state's system, the office oversees training, notice and compliance of the state's 911 phone surcharge.

"Right now, we collect about $27 million each year for 911 fees," she said.

In terms of local surcharges, 68 of the state's 83 counties charge a surcharge, with Oakland County's currently being the lowest.

In addition to state and local surcharges, the state collected $769,206 in 2014 from pre-paid wireless sales, which aren't subject to a standard surcharge.

Under Michigan law, 82.5 percent of the surcharge fees collected by the state are returned back to counties in the state, or about $23 million. Of that, 40 percent is divided equally among counties, with 60 percent divided based on county population. Six percent of the funds collected are made available for training purposes, while 7.75 percent is made available for reimbursing local systems for costs related to wireless emergency service. The remainder is used to operate the state's regional dispatch center and the Michigan State Police to maintain the office of the state 911 coordinator.

Statewide, there are a few 911 systems that have made the switch to NG911 systems. In Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the entire 911 system has been built out and upgraded. A consortium of counties, including Midland, Bay, Huron, Tuscaloosa and Iosco counties have upgraded their systems, as well as Genesee County and a handful of other counties on the west side of the state.

Despite upgrading systems, there remain holes in state regulations that continue to hamper location services. For instance, efforts to require large multi-line systems to provide location data for each individual line have yet to be passed. As a result, calls to 911 from some school districts and large, interconnected office buildings may provide 911 systems with inaccurate or incomplete locations, such as an administration building. Public safety experts recommend people hooked into such large, multi-line systems meet first responders at the entrance when possible, in order to guide them to the correct location.

Likewise, some VoIP phone users should be aware that their phone's location may be registered in a different location than where it is physically located. While VoIP phones provided for home use by internet providers are typically accurate, VoIP phone users who often relocate their phone for convenience should be aware that the phone's location must be updated when its moved.

"We have gotten a call from someone who lives in Oakland County, but are in Maryland and in their hotel with a VoIP phone, and it comes back to Oakland County when the emergency is in Maryland," Oakland County's Coates said. "Voice over IP is a nice feature and affordable, but the citizen needs to think about that and make sure the programming is updated."

Meanwhile, for all the advances in technology, 911 officials say traditional landlines still provide the most accurate location to operators, for the time being.

"Copper landlines are still the most reliable. It's a fixed line at a fixed address, and there's a tabular line that tells us that," Coates said. ­

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