Rural Illinois Counties Make NG 9-1-1 Strides Through Cooperation
Wednesday, May 22, 2013 | Comments


Photo courtesy City of Carbondale
Police Department

By Kristen Beckman, Assistant Editor

When 9-1-1 coordinators from rural counties in Illinois realized next-generation 9-1-1 (NG 9-1-1) was coming and that it could provide tremendous benefits to their citizens, they formed a coalition of counties to make the deployment process more cost efficient and improve their ability to handle major events.

Nearly a decade ago, the 9-1-1 industry started developing NG 9-1-1 standards. The idea of NG 9-1-1 was being discussed at National Emergency Number Association (NENA) meetings across the country, including at the regional NENA meeting covering southern Illinois.

Patrick Lustig, director of Jackson County 9-1-1 and president of Illinois NENA, and Ken Smith, 9-1-1 coordinator for Williamson County and Illinois NENA region seven vice president, took an interest in the early NG 9-1-1 discussions and began to think about what it might mean for their rural counties in southern Illinois.

“Circuit-switched technology has served us well, but it is no longer expandable, and that is why we are transitioning to IP networks,” said Lustig. “I felt it would be expensive, and I knew our neighbors all needed the same thing. I knew we needed to work together.”

Many early NG 9-1-1 projects across the country have involved states, urban areas or well-organized and well-funded regional projects. The state of Illinois offered none of those advantages, said Smith.

“Our state had no plans, our local exchange carrier (LEC) had no plans, and if we tried to do it as individual systems, we would not qualify for any grants,” said Smith. “We would have been one of the very last areas of the country to provide NG 9-1-1. The only solution was to do it as a region.”

The cooperation led to the creation of the Counties of Southern Illinois (CSI) NG 9-1-1 project, with Lustig serving as project manager.

The project proved to be anything but simple. While NENA worked to develop and finalize NG 9-1-1 standards, CSI has spent more than seven years tackling issues including organizing a coalition of counties, working out technical details, financing the deployment of next-generation equipment and creating new laws to allow them to operate it.

The project began with a partnership of three counties and eventually grew to a coalition of 18 counties linked by intergovernmental agreements. Lustig said three counties ultimately left the group due to funding and other concerns. Fifteen counties currently make up CSI. The counties are primarily rural, with 10 of the 15 member counties having populations of less than 20,000. The largest city in the 15-county region is Carbondale with a population of about 26,000.

“The counties themselves have no history of working together, but the 9-1-1 coordinators in our region do,” said Smith. “We had been hosting joint training classes and cooperating and sharing on a number of issues for years. When Pat introduced the group to the concept of NG 9-1-1 we recognized immediately that if we did not get out in front of the issue, we would be left behind.”

Early on, the coalition formed itself into a 501C3 not-for-profit organization and began to look for funding opportunities. Lustig said most counties in Illinois derive their funding from landline and wireless surcharges, but revenues were declining, and the project required additional sources of funding.

The group discovered that federal homeland security public-safety grants largely exclude 9-1-1 systems, but CSI secured a $600,000 Department of Justice (DOJ) community policing grant, which it used for customer premises equipment (CPE) at the public-safety answering points (PSAPs), said Lustig. The grant was a start, but only a dent in the estimated $2.6 million cost of the project. Then the group hit on some good luck.

“As in life, timing is opportunity,” said Lustig. “There was a thing called the stimulus package that put out some funding to deliver broadband in this country to rural America.”

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) with $7.2 billion for Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grants, meant to expand access to broadband services throughout the United States.

CSI was not eligible for BTOP money, said Lustig. But Clearwave, a broadband carrier in southern Illinois, was and had already unsuccessfully attempted to secure a grant. So CSI partnered with Clearwave, which added an NG 9-1-1 element to its application and Clearwave ultimately won a $31 million BTOP grant and a $12 million state matching grant that included work to build out last-mile fiber to PSAPs.

Clearwave spent $4 million to connect all of CSI’s PSAPs and offered the group an affordable monthly recurring cost for access to the broadband network. The grant also provided CSI with $1.2 million to purchase hardware and software.

CSI built two completely redundant diverse data centers separated by 54 miles to replace the current single circuit-switched data center owned and managed by the public telephone company. Having one data center creates a single point of failure, and the counties have experienced incidents where 9-1-1 services have gone down because of that, said Lustig. CSI also purchased two session border controllers, one for each side of the network.

To complete the buildout work, CSI put out a request for proposals (RFP) and selected NG9-1-1 Inc. as its 9-1-1 service provider and application vendor. The group selected NG9-1-1 because the company is certified, a requirement in Illinois, and because it promised to help CSI through the regulatory process. NG9-1-1 is building CSI’s transport network and facilitating discussions with wireless carriers and LECs about how calls will come into the network.

CSI found creative solutions to deal with some of the technical issues it faced, including details like converting geographic information system (GIS) data to a NENA-compliant format. The group contracted with Southern Illinois University at Carbondale to use geography students to properly format all of the GIS data so it could be used in emergency call-routing functions. CSI also is working with the Illinois Institute of Technology in Wheaton, Ill., to carry out testing of the system.

Solving technical issues was only part of the puzzle. CSI discovered that it also needed regulatory approval to operate the network.

“The law never allowed for NG 9-1-1,” said Lustig. “Even though we are transitioning to IP telephony systems in this country, our laws have not kept pace to allow us to operate them. The FCC governs carriers, not PSAPs, and they defer a lot of times to state bodies. Before we could deploy NG 9-1-1 technology, we had to get a piece of legislation enacted to allow us to do it.”

CSI worked with an Illinois state lawmaker to introduce and pass a bill that allowed for an NG 9-1-1 pilot program. The legislation provided for a one-year trial, and Lustig said CSI may have to file a plan of modification for a regulatory body review to extend the pilot if necessary.

CSI also filed a petition in February 2012 with the Illinois Commerce Commission to allow it deploy NG 9-1-1. The group is still awaiting final approval.

Despite the variety of challenges CSI has encountered, the group remains committed to deploying an NG 9-1-1 system that officials said will provide tremendous benefits for its citizens.

In addition to the traditional benefits of text, data and video information handling, one major benefit of the regional network approach is that it will provide the ability for neighboring counties to back each other up. Smith said most of the PSAPs in CSI’s counties are two-position PSAPs, and a major incident can quickly overwhelm a single dispatcher. With the coalition of counties, all 47 positions are available to take calls to help relieve pressure on an overburdened dispatcher during an incident.

Lustig also sees value in the technology’s ability to facilitate text to 9-1-1, and for other public-safety-related applications like poison control and N-1-1 services to ride on the network.

And NG 9-1-1 also will address challenges related to the geography of CSI’s counties, many of which border neighboring states. Often centers in these counties will receive 9-1-1 calls from just over the state border, and they don’t have an effective way to transfer call data to dispatch centers in Kentucky, Indiana and Missouri.

Smith advises other regions looking into similar projects to keep their coalitions small, about four or five counties all with one LEC and within the same local access and transport area (LATA).

“We could not have done this without the 9-1-1 professionals here within CSI,” said Lustig. “It really takes commitment.”

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