O’Conor Sets NENA Agenda for Coming Year
Wednesday, September 15, 2010 | Comments
Steve O’Conor took over as president of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) earlier this year. He has 36 years of experience and is the assistant emergency communications manager for the West Palm Beach (Fla.) Police Department, managing the daily operations of the emergency communications division and a staff of 35. O’Conor oversees telephony, radio, CAD and geographic information system (GIS) applications for police telecommunications.
What is the most important policy or legislation currently affecting NENA and its members?
Currently, the most important legislation for NENA’s members is the Next Generation 9-1-1 Preservation Act (HR 4829). The act focuses federal policies and funding programs to ensure a successful migration to IP-enabled, next generation 9-1-1 (NG 9-1-1) systems. The bill ensures that technologically advanced 9-1-1 and emergency communications systems are universally available and adequately funded to serve all Americans. Also, the act ensures that all 9-1-1 and emergency response organizations have access to high-speed broadband networks, interconnected IP backbones, and innovative services and applications. The legislation has been introduced in the House, however, in a short legislative year, it is unclear what legislation will be passed and signed into law.
Looking at the bigger picture, the central message NENA wants to deliver to our government officials is that public safety is one of the core functions of government, and access to emergency public-safety services is provided through the 9-1-1 system. Therefore, as an essential responsibility, we should provide the funding necessary to upgrade our infrastructure to support our transition to NG 9-1-1 and enable broadband solutions for public safety. Equally important is for our emergency communications centers to have the capability of delivering available data to those who respond to incidents as a result of 9-1-1 calls. With more than 250 million 9-1-1 calls a year, the simple questions to ask are: What do 9-1-1 and NG 9-1-1 services mean to the American public? What do 9-1-1 and NG 9-1-1 capabilities mean to our police, fire and EMS colleagues? How would our first responders be affected if 9-1-1 could not keep up with technological advances or ceased to exist completely?
What is the most important technology affecting NENA and its members?
As “the 9-1-1 association,” we have been advocating for improvement in 9-1-1 policy, technology, operations and education for the past 29 years. Never has there been a more critical time in our history. Our 40-year-old technology, though extremely reliable, has not kept pace with the changes in technology during the same period. We are serving a whole new generation, many of whom only communicate wirelessly. The nature of our business has changed; in many areas, the number of wireless 9-1-1 calls now exceeds landline call volume. A segment of our population, the deaf, hearing impaired and speech impaired who communicate almost exclusively through text messaging, are underserved, because our public-safety answering points (PSAPs) can’t communicate directly with them without relying on outdated and clunky telecommunications devices for the deaf. It is a reasonable expectation that in the event of an emergency, people could request emergency assistance using the same technology that they use every day. As an industry, we must achieve consensus on migrating to NG 9-1-1 technology. This involves not a singular standard, but the suite of standards that NENA has been developing during the past few years.
What are your goals as NENA’s president for the coming year?
We are on the verge of bringing the vision of NG 9-1-1 to life thanks in large part to NENA’s core of volunteers. Our committees have already contributed much of their time and talents to this effort, but economic realities have made it increasingly difficult to attract and retain new personnel to drive our standards development and address pressing operations, technical, education and policy issues. If we are to continue to move the transition process forward, and do so effectively, then it is vital that we allocate resources to support our committee work. By increasing the number of volunteers on our committees, we will achieve our goal of completing our next-generation standards development by spreading the work around.
While there is much work to do going forward with respect to the completion of our operations and technical standards, requirements and supporting documents, we must not lose sight of our core functions, one of which is providing our members with resources to assist them in doing their jobs. We are expanding the “members only” section of our website and will be offering model standard operating procedures (SOPs) based on our operations standards and model recommendations in Word or RTF format. In addition, we have joined with the Denise Amber Lee Foundation in leading an effort to urge the adoption of minimum standards for telecommunicator training across the United States and Canada and to secure the necessary funding for this training.
Finally, because I manage a communications center in Florida, I am extremely sensitive to the challenges of maintaining adequate staffing when our centers are impacted by natural disasters. This year, I would like to see the expansion of NENA and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) National Joint TERT Initiative mutual-aid program. In May 2009, the model recommendations for TERT deployment document was certified as an American National Standard. It is my goal to continue our work with APCO and take this to the next level, completing the federal credentialing process with the Office of the National Incident Management System (NIMS).
What has been NENA’s most recent biggest accomplishment?
Without question, it is the hiring of Dr. Brian Fontes as our first CEO. Under his leadership, NENA has achieved the recognition it deserves and has gained a new level of respect inside the Beltway. Before coming to NENA, Fontes served as vice president for federal relations for AT&T Services, and prior to that, he was vice president for federal relations for Cingular Wireless. He has also served as the senior vice president for policy and administration at CTIA, as chief of staff for the FCC and as senior advisor to FCC Commissioner James H. Quello. In 2006, he was inducted into RCR’s Wireless Hall of Fame, recognizing his career in wireless telecommunications. We are most fortunate to have him leading our association.
What do you think will happen with the 700 MHz D block spectrum?
NENA is on the record as supporting the allocation of the D block to public safety, as long as funding to construct and maintain a nationwide broadband public-safety network is provided. We believe that such funding, in conjunction with the allocation of the D Block to public safety, is an essential element of this plan.
Because you asked for my prediction, I believe that with the mid-term primaries and general election looming, it doesn’t appear likely that there will be sufficient time for congressional action to halt the auction during this congressional term. I believe that such action, if it occurs at all, will be left to the new Congress. Indications are, however, that the administration, FCC and House and Senate leadership are working together to provide what they view as the needs of public safety: funding for the construction and maintenance of a nationwide, interoperable broadband network, with access to additional spectrum in times of crisis.
Overall, the need for wireless spectrum is rapidly growing in all sectors, including public safety. The White House has directed the National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA) to find an additional 500 megahertz of spectrum for commercial and public use. Spectrum is important, which is why allocation is such a critical issue for public safety and for all wireless users. Public safety has an additional major concern. How will we finance the construction and ongoing maintenance of a secure, resilient network? With this in mind, it appears that this administration is focusing on making more efficient use of available spectrum a priority and encouraging the sharing of available spectrum. I believe that this issue, coupled with the recent draft legislation from several lawmakers that also calls for flexibility and sharing of available spectrum, will be given a great deal of attention in the coming months. These legislative proposals with the goal of deploying a nationwide public-safety interoperable broadband network are of added interest, because they also provide a funding source for the construction and maintenance of this network.
How did you get your start in the mobile communications industry?
I began my career as a police radio dispatcher in Sparta, N.J., in 1974 when that department hired its first civilians to fill that role. Until then, police officers served as the desk officer, handling emergency and nonemergency telephone calls, dispatching via police radio and handling walk-in complaints. Those were the pre-9-1-1 days (New Jersey didn’t have statewide E9-1-1 until 1992) and pre-CAD days. In fact, our calls were hand written in the blotter, and the teletype was just that — an automatic send and receive teleprinter with built-in paper tape reader and punch.
What is something most people don’t know about you?
Before most of my free time was taken up serving the NENA membership, part of every week was spent singing in a barbershop chorus. My quartet had the opportunity to perform both the U.S. and Canadian national anthems for several spring training games of the Montreal Expos, and we later sang at spring training for the Washington Nationals.
What would you be doing if you didn’t have your current job?
More than likely, I would be consulting. I would probably be using my talents and abilities to serve public-safety agencies by helping them in their migration to NG 9-1-1. I was drawn to police work by the desire to help others, and this seems like a natural progression.
What are you most looking forward to in the coming year?
At my installation, I made the commitment to work with our board of directors to strengthen NENA and improve 9-1-1 for every person in need. I look forward to this opportunity and am thankful to the NENA membership for allowing me to serve as their president during these exciting times.
Editor’s Note: An abbreviated version of this interview is in the September issue of MissionCritical Communications on Page 62. 
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