The Federal Communications Commission announced in August 2011 a five-step plan to upgrade the nation's 9-1-1 emergency communications system to accept text messages, as well as images and videos.
Since 2004, Walt Magnussen and colleagues in Texas A&M s Internet2 Technology Evaluation Center (ITEC) — including Ana Goulart, an assistant professor in the Department of Engineering Technology and Industrial Distribution — have been working to test this initiative to develop Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1). This new public safety and emergency communications system is based on Internet protocols (IP) so that the system runs on packet-switched data networks, such as the Internet.
ITEC was established in 2004 using its researchers' expertise in areas associated with NG9-1-1, Internet telephony or voice-over-Internet-protocol (VoIP), and network security. The Texas A&M center was the fourth such center established in the U.S. and the only one that's still actively working on projects. ITEC's work has been heavily supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) so that applications can be launched more quickly and cost-effectively, and over a single architecture.
"People are changing how they communicate, so we have to find ways to adapt our communications systems to these new ways of communicating."
Internet telephony is hardware and software that enables people to use the Internet to make telephone or video conference calls. Internet service providers (ISPs) and companies such as Skype and Vonage offer this service, which allows customers communicate cheaply and in real time with other users all over the world over the Internet.
With Internet telephony, a special phone called an IP phone converts the sender's voice (or video or photo) into very short packets of coded information — 0s and 1s — and transmits that information through the Internet. An IP phone on the receiving end translates that information and plays the sender's message.
But for computers to communicate with each other, Goulart says, there has to be a set of rules, called protocols, that govern that communication. With email, for instance, the SMTP protocol makes sure the same information can be conveyed and translated across different systems.
For instance, Goulart's native language is Portuguese, but she can "decode" English. For her to communicate with students, she and her students must agree beforehand on which language they will use.
"This is how protocols work in general," Goulart says. "For Internet telephony, there is a ‘signaling' protocol that makes the computers agree on the type of voice and video codecs — encoders/decoders — that will be used before the call starts."
The ITEC researchers have been working with the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) to develop these NG9-1-1 protocols. Currently, you can't text a photo of a car accident to traditional 9-1-1, which is based on traditional circuit-based telephony — the creaky phone network of yesteryear. But you could transmit these messages if you were using Internet telephony. DoT officials say that these text, photo and video messages are critical to future transportation safety and mobility advances, so the initiative to develop NG9-1-1 has established a foundation for public emergency communications services in a wireless mobile society.
"People are changing how they communicate, so we have to find ways to adapt our communications systems to these new ways of communicating," Goulart says.
This NG9-1-1 system will allow not only for text, image and video messaging, but for telemetry as well. Information such as the speed of a vehicle at the time of the crash, whether the air bag deployed and how the car is oriented after the accident is useful to emergency responders. In the DoT's proof-of-concept project, a collaboration with OnStar, the in-vehicle monitoring company was able to transfer a "call" from inside the vehicle to 9-1-1 and provide that status information to the call taker, who then sent the information to emergency responders.
"Another extension of this is medical information that needs to be conveyed," Magnussen says. "For example, whether someone has asthma or is allergic to certain medications."
An early grant from the commerce department helped ITEC researchers to formalize the architecture and develop early test-bed equipment. With a proof-of-concept project sponsored by the DoT the researchers built the architecture and deployed it at five call centers across the U.S. This project, completed in 2008, paved the way for several testing events called Industry Collaboration Events, or ICE. To date, three ICEs have happened, with several more in planning.
"Texas A&M is viewed as one of the premier universities in emergency communications, which is where we want to be."
But there are still issues with how to transition to IP-based emergency communications and how to make new and existing architecture work, Magnussen says.
The first issue is that the new architecture depends on the availability of broadband everywhere, which the United States does not have, Magnussen says. And unfortunately, he says, the United States is falling further behind the rest of the world in broadband deployment.
Second, there are "location acquisition" questions. The current 9-1-1 system recognizes a caller's number and then finds that number in a database to give emergency responders a physical address. But in IP-based communications, a caller can be anywhere, so how will responders know where to go?
And lastly, there is the issue of information security, because just like email and websites, Internet-based telephony is prone to attack or eavesdropping.
To address this last concern, the team has received NSF funding and is currently in the third year of a four-year project to create an NG9-1-1 security test bed. Goulart heads this portion of the research, with collaborators from the University of North Texas and Columbia University.
Also of concern is the existence of wireless "silos," where separate groups of responders — police and fire departments, for example — have their own communications systems and can't communicate with each other. So they all respond to the same emergency. Building an information exchange for first responders will help to create that information link.
"Texas A&M is viewed as one of the premier universities in emergency communications, which is where we want to be in terms of funding opportunities," Magnussen says.