ESInet Implementation Provides Cost, Data Sharing Opportunities for Pennsylvania 9-1-1 Centers
By Brian Melcer
Tuesday, July 27, 2021 | Comments

Data has been called the oil of the 21st century because pretty much everything these days runs on it. This is particularly true of public-safety and justice operations. More and better data leads to enhanced situational awareness, which leads to improved decision-making, and ultimately, enhanced emergency response outcomes.

A tremendous amount of data flows into emergency communications centers (ECCs) today, and the amount will continue to expand exponentially, driven by broadband communications systems, alarm systems and the internet of things (IoT). But raw data, like oil, has no utility unless it can be harnessed and processed effectively. In the public-safety and justice communities, this means the ability to analyze and contextualize it so that it is actionable, and then the ability to exchange it seamlessly.

With an eye toward the latter, numerous counties in western Pennsylvania embarked on an initiative a decade ago that not only accomplished the goal but also put them on the path toward a regional next-generation 9-1-1 (NG 911) capability and much more.

The Pipeline
An NG 9-1-1 system consists of two essential elements: next-generation core services (NGCS) and one or more emergency services IP networks (ESInets). The former are the functional elements that enable an NG 9-1-1-compliant ECC to handle emergency calls. The latter provides the transport architecture required to deliver calls in an NG 9-1-1 environment. An ESInet is analogous to an oil pipeline. But transporting NG 9-1-1-related data traffic generated by emergency calls, such as the data generated by a CAD system, is not its sole purpose.

If an ESInet is designed and implemented properly, it can perform myriad additional functions, such as being used to backhaul radio traffic from the tower sites to the system core, and to interconnect multiple agencies in a region. The latter capability enables the regional sharing of resources and infrastructure, such as a CAD system, 9-1-1 call-handling equipment (CHE), or a LMR system, which creates economies of scale and often results in enhanced capabilities, especially for smaller agencies that typically lack the resources of larger agencies.

The Pennsylvania Region 13 Task Force (Region 13) is a collaborative effort of 14 counties in southwestern Pennsylvania, plus the city of Pittsburgh, that was created to improve emergency management and communications regionwide. The region’s footprint covers 10,233 square miles and contains 737 municipalities, 734 fire departments, 399 police departments and 210 emergency medical services (EMS) agencies. Member counties include Allegheny, Armstrong, Butler, Beaver, Cambria, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence, Mercer, Somerset, Venango, Washington and Westmoreland.

The member counties were seeking a way to interconnect their ECCs, as well as their emergency operations centers, to enable the sharing of public-safety data and systems, such as 9-1-1 telephony, CAD and LMR. The task force decided that the best way to accomplish this was to implement a regional ESInet.

The project was supported by Mission Critical Partners, which provided a conceptual design of the ESInet, located funding sources; procured hardware and services; obtained all licenses, permits and clearances; oversaw installation of hardware, microwave, and fiber links and security appliances; provided assistance regarding governance; performed final design and acceptance testing; configured services for user agencies; and provided interim monitoring and maintenance of the network.

The task force also was motivated by the fact that many of the systems in place at each ECC had reached, or were fast approaching, end of life, a situation that was more vexing because several of the member counties lacked the financial resources to perform system replacements by themselves. Consequently, the task force decided that an approach whereby multiple resources and capabilities would be shared across the region would be the best solution. At the time, an NG 9-1-1 capability wasn’t a consideration.

Typically, governance is the biggest obstacle to regional sharing of anything, but that wasn’t the case in Region 13. For many years the member counties had operated under a regionwide mutual-aid agreement and enjoyed a remarkable history of cooperation for many initiatives and responses to emergency incidents. This culture of cooperation made it far easier to craft the myriad intergovernmental agreements needed to establish the regional ESInet and decide what applications would run on it.

The next big step was to negotiate deals with several fiber-optic service providers that are active in the Region 13 footprint. This proved to be a little trickier because a few of the providers saw the initiative as a competitive threat. Eventually though, agreements were reached. In the beginning, the ESInet’s backbone consisted of a combination of commercial and county-owned fiber that interconnected most of the member counties. Those that could not be interconnected via fiber, because the topology and/or geography of their locations made it infeasible or cost-prohibitive to do so, were interconnected via microwave links. This generally was adequate, although ECCs in rural areas had to deal with some capacity limitations.

Over time, the infrastructure continued to be built out and today all member counties are interconnected via fiber. In fact, the Region 13 counties today are interconnected to counties in two other regions:
• The Southern Alleghenies 911 Cooperative, which includes Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Centre, Huntingdon, Fulton and Somerset counties
• The Northern Tier, which includes Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Crawford, Elk, Erie, Jefferson, Forest, McKean and Warren counties

The overarching goal of the fiber-interconnection project, which was funded through the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) Statewide Interconnectivity Funding Grant Program, was to enable the regions to more easily transition to NG 9-1-1 service when the time is right for doing so, by enhancing the ability of each entity to share resources, capabilities and costs. The next milestone for the Region 13 counties will be to interconnect with the statewide ESInet within the next 18 months. The idea is to eventually interconnect every regional ESInet in Pennsylvania to the state’s network, which theoretically will enable every ECC, regardless of whether they are connected to a regional ESInet or the statewide ESInet, to share resources and data seamlessly.

ESInet Successes
Considerable work needs to be done to bring the future vision to fruition, but Region 13’s ESInet, which was launched in 2013, already is having a significant impact, as evidenced by the following: • All counties except one are sharing a 9-1-1 call-handling system • Nine counties are sharing the Inter County Regional Radio System (ICORRS) • Two shared CAD systems are in place, with a third being developed One of the CAD systems is shared by four counties — Butler, Lawrence, Mercer and Venango — that shared a common problem. A couple of years ago the four counties came to the same sobering conclusion at about the same time: that each of their CAD systems had reached end of life and needed replacement.

Interestingly, three of the counties — Venango, Lawrence and Butler — were using the same platform installed by the same CAD system vendor. However, each system, including Mercer County’s, was standalone, meaning that they were unable to forward essential CAD data when they transferred emergency calls to each other, something that occurs often given that all of the counties border each other, much less share the advanced data generated in an NG 9-1-1 environment.

This was problematic because a telecommunicator from the transferring center had to call the receiving center to relay caller- and incident-related information. This introduced the potential for error, which could delay or negatively impact the emergency response. Even when done effectively, the effort ate up precious time. When lives are at stake, that’s a big problem.

Another troubling aspect of the siloed CAD systems was that the four counties were unable to back up each other if one of the ECCs was rendered uninhabitable, inaccessible or inoperable by a natural or man-made disaster. And, while the four counties shared the 9-1-1 call-handling platform that is a component of the Western Pennsylvania County Regional ESInet (WestCORE) and were able to answer each other’s 9-1-1 calls, they were unable to leverage the call data and dispatch recommendations that each CAD system provided in such situations.

Consequently, the counties decided that the best approach would be to implement a regional CAD system that would be shared by the four counties, a task made far simpler and easier by the presence of the Region 13 ESInet. The regional CAD system simply was set up as a new application on the ESInet, with the system host installed in Butler County’s 9-1-1 center and the system backup at Lawrence County. All four counties are connected to the host and backup facilities by fiber.

In addition to the operational improvements that this shared CAD system delivers, tremendous cost savings also were realized. It is estimated that each of the ECCs would have spent more than $1 million to implement a replacement stand-alone CAD system. In contrast, the regional system cost $3.6 million to deploy, with the implementation costs fully covered by the PEMA regional interconnectivity funding program. Costs related to operations and maintenance are being covered by the counties, allocated on a per-position basis.

In addition to the implementation cost savings, significant money is being saved because none of the counties needs to have a backup center. That’s because the regional CAD system is configured to provide the requisite resiliency, redundancy and interoperability needed by the ECCs. Backup facilities generally are expensive to maintain. They also take considerable time to turn up in a bug-out situation, a less-than-ideal scenario because bug outs only happen in the aftermath of a major disaster, when an ECC can ill afford to be down, even for a short amount of time.

The primary benefits beyond cost savings provided by the regional CAD system are that all data associated with a 9-1-1 call is transferred when the call is rerouted to one of the other centers, and all situational awareness information can be shared between the counties in real time.

Telecommunicators who need to abandon their facility in a bug-out situation can go to any of the other three centers, log into the system using their own user names and passcodes, and immediately begin to handle calls as if they never left, with all screen customizations preserved.

Telecommunicators in one county can dispatch emergency resources from any one of the other counties, which is particularly useful for multijurisdictional incidents that occur along county borders. Any notes regarding an incident put into the regional CAD system by a telecommunicator in one county can be seen by all telecommunicators in the other counties.

Telecommunicators in all counties immediately are notified anytime an incident is input into the system. Telecommunicators can see on their screens the locations and status of every response unit in the four-county region at any given moment, thanks to the regional CAD system’s geographic information system (GIS) and mapping application.

All of this has had a dramatic impact on emergency response in the region. So profound has the impact been that the initiative received the 2019 Governor’s Award for Local Government Excellence, presented on behalf of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, in the category of information technology.

Eventually, the Region 13 ESInet will provide the backbone for NG 9-1-1 service in the region. In 2019, the task force secured funding from the PEMA to continue its NG 9-1-1 migration. This grant is specifically intended to fund an in-depth study of GIS capabilities within the region. This is important because NG 9-1-1 systems rely on geospatial routing, which leverages GIS data, to deliver 9-1-1 calls to the correct ECC and to dispatch the appropriate emergency response.

The Region 13 ESInet is a success story on many levels. It is a model for interagency collaboration. It enables member counties to share resources and data in ways that were impossible before its existence. It enables member counties to reduce their capital and operational costs. It gives smaller agencies the opportunity to leverage capabilities that otherwise would be beyond their financial reach. Most importantly, it enables ECCs in the region to improve emergency response, through enhanced situational awareness and decision-making, which is great news for the citizens they serve.

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Brian Melcer is a senior program manager for Mission Critical Partners (MCP), a public-safety and justice sector consulting firm. Prior to joining MCP, Brian was director of public safety for Lawrence County, Pennsylvania. He can be emailed at BrianMelcer@MissionCriticalPartners.com.



 
 
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