Emergency response centers (also known as public safety answering points [PSAPs]) face more responsibilities today than ever with the growing complexity and scale of emergency incidents and the availability of new technologies. As cases become more complicated, police, fire and emergency medical services must be able to collaborate faster and more seamlessly. With the availability of new data sources and rich media, such as video from smartphones, it is critical that emergency services organizations can make use of this information to improve preparedness and make faster, more informed and effective operational decisions.
For example, a call reporting a fire in an old industrial area might come in to a local emergency response center. The person calling was just passing by, but has also started recording video of the fire in progress. Unfortunately, as with many PSAPs, this one is only equipped to handle voice calls. As a result, the caller has to describe the situation and answer follow-up questions. When the first responders arrive, they find a rapidly escalating situation and have to call for backup and additional equipment. Their lack of real-time situational awareness costs more time and increased property damage.
Emergency response centers carefully monitor answer-and-dispatch times. Firefighters train constantly to improve turnout times and cities plan carefully to keep travel times to industry standards because, in public safety, every second is critical. In this type of environment, it only makes sense to use the wealth of information already made available by smartphones, closed-circuit television (CCTV) and rapidly proliferating smart city sensors to provide first responders with all the information possible around the situation to which they are responding. This is one way public safety communications are evolving, and multimedia is playing a critical role.
Moving With the Times
An end-to-end view of public safety communications systems extends from a citizen’s first point of contact with the emergency services agency to the wireless communications units operated by responding emergency services workers. In the middle are call centers, incident command centers and supplemental consulting resources (e.g., a medical facility or hazardous materials information center) that assist in phases of the emergency response.
Unfortunately, today’s emergency services face a number of challenges across this continuum. First and foremost, aging infrastructure is based on out-dated wireline time-division multiplexing (TDM) infrastructure, which is underpowered for multimedia traffic — especially video — and difficult to scale when traffic volumes increase during a crisis. Meanwhile, citizens are increasingly accustomed to broadband services that allow them to use text, images and video to communicate. As a result, they expect PSAPs to be able to receive these kinds of communications, when many are not.
Initiatives are underway worldwide to enhance the kinds of information that can flow across this end-to-end continuum of emergency response. For citizen access to emergency service resources, as in the example above, next-generation 9-1-1/112 architectures are now being designed for data-rich engagement with smartphones and computer systems.
On the responder front, officers and emergency personnel often carry multiple devices to access the information they need in the field. This need to be able to send and receive video and images, and the related increasing data volumes, is creating further challenges.
Fortunately, new mission-critical LTE mobile wireless networks offer a data-rich link to the emergency responders in the field. New mission-critical networks, such as FirstNet in the United States and the Emergency Services Network in the United Kingdom, ensure that voice, video and data traffic reliably flow to emergency responders — even when a cellular network is under heavy load because of a local crisis.
Two Models to Consider
Two models are being adopted by these next-generation services for how to architect an emergency network capable of handling data-rich media: NENA i3 and 3GPP IMS.
NENA i3 — The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) has developed the i3 standard to support the evolution of E9-1-1 systems to an all-IP-based emergency communications system in North America. NG9-1-1 enables the public to request emergency assistance via voice, real-time text, images, video or other multimedia data. It also enables PSAPs to share this rich information with emergency responders in the field to provide 360-degree situational awareness, shorten response times and improve incident management.
Various public safety and industry bodies have developed the standard over the past 12 years in accordance with the unique characteristics of North American emergency response networks. Here are some of the key benefits provided by the NENA i3 standard:
· It is the universally acknowledged basis for public safety deployments of NG9-1-1 systems and was used as the basis for Europe’s NG112 standard during various pilot programs.
· The industry is producing products and services based on the i3 standard and dozens of RFPs have been issued by public safety agencies for i3-compliant equipment.
· Several U.S. states have deployed i3 transitional solutions on a statewide level and are planning the deployment of i3 compliant solutions to enable multimedia emergency services.
· Canada has adopted the i3 standard and is planning to have NG9-1-1 networks ready to provide NG9-1-1 voice service by June 2020.
IP multimedia subsystem (IMS) — IMS is also not a new standard. It has undergone over 15 years of development with substantial work completed by the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), which sets the standards for LTE technology and 5G wireless communications. It has been heavily pushed by the largest telecommunications infrastructure vendors and service providers and has become the de facto standard for voice services over LTE.
IMS is the glue that bridges multimedia services across heterogeneous networks and is generally regarded as a core component of virtually all next-generation, IP-based communications. The deployment of IMS-based networks and systems now allows end users to share voice, video, text and photos regardless of the device, service provider and access network (fixed or mobile).
To provide a sense of scale and growth of IMS users, in 2017 there were 939M IMS-based subscribers worldwide, with 78 percent of those from mobile services. By 2018 that had grown to 1.4 billion, with 85 percent of those from mobile services. The number of worldwide IMS subscribers is forecast to grow to 3.6 billion by 2022. Given its wide adoption by telecom providers and users, IMS provides an almost universal platform for handling emergency services communications. It is already in use by some national public safety broadband networks such as FirstNet in the United States, SafeNet in South Korea and the UK Emergency Services Network.
Blending NENA i3 and IMS — Fortunately, between the two standards, it isn’t a case of either-or. Both standards have similar roots in the session initiation protocol (SIP), which is the basis for all voice over IP services and IMS, as well as being the roots of NENA i3. It is feasible for NENA i3 to make use of functional elements in IMS with the upgrade of older routers that are approaching end of life. It will gain economies of scale associated with a global standard in use by virtually all mobile users, and with the evolution to 5G, many future wireline services. This will ensure interoperability across local, regional and national next-generation 911/112 emergency services networks.
Emergency service networks today are undergoing a massive revamp. Technology available in the commercial and consumer sectors is providing critical information to emergency services, but the infrastructure on which emergency services currently run are not always capable of processing information submitted via smartphones, applications and communications mediums besides telephony.
Next-generation 911/112 and mission-critical LTE are the key pillars supporting next-generation emergency services. Both are required in order to access critical incident and collateral information from both emergency callers and collateral sources such as traffic data and environmental sensors. They are also needed to submit this information to the emergency call center and route to emergency responders in the field.
It is critical that emergency services and public safety entities facilitate a transition to broadband LTE-based emergency services networks. To do so, these networks must be built using multimedia architecture such as the NENA i3 standard or IMS. With this telecommunications infrastructure, emergency services can access vital data from citizens, provide a better platform for communications and improve the capabilities of emergency response networks resulting in fast time-to-incident and more efficient use of resources.
Because the technological and operational requirements of agencies globally are unique, no one solution fits every agency. It is a complex decision dependent on many factors, including the vendors that the agency is working with and what technologies and architecture partner agencies or surrounding governments are implementing. Ultimately a comprehensive assessment of vendors and their offerings, collaboration opportunities with potential partner agencies and rigorous cost-benefit analysis must be undertaken before approaching a mission-critical LTE network implementation.
Arnaud Legrand is the head of marketing in Nokia’s Public Sector, where he leads marketing efforts to educate government entities on the advances and benefits of telecommunications to improve the services they deliver to their citizens and businesses.