APCO Takes Different Stance on Interoperability at Regional Conference
Monday, October 14, 2019 | Comments

Interoperability was the theme at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International Emerging Technology Forum in Westminster, Colorado, Oct. 8 – 9. However, APCO officials said interoperability should be achieved with requests for proposals (RFPs) that primarily establish objectives rather than requiring standards.

Jeff Cohen, chief counsel and director of government relations at APCO, said the association believes full interoperability for the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) won’t be achieved without a connection to next-generation 9-1-1 (NG 9-1-1). “There will be a gap in the chain of communications” without interoperability between FirstNet and NG 9-1-1, said Cohen.

Mike Dame, an official from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), who oversaw the FirstNet-focused State Implementation Grant Program (SLIGP) grants, agreed. He said the issue should be addressed on the front end, rather than following the LMR model for interoperability, which had too many delays and was too expensive.

Jay English, APCO chief technology officer (CTO), said the industry must tell federal lawmakers what NG 9-1-1 is and agree on the best way to implement it before Congress will appropriate money for NG 9-1-1. “Denver’s new 9-1-1 center should be able to talk to any other 9-1-1 center,” he said.

His presentation noted that the definition of NG 9-1-1 — in addition to being IP-based with new communications inputs and multimedia — must include the possibility for disparate systems, emergency communications centers (ECCs) and authorized agencies to interoperate.

However, asking vendors for NG 9-1-1 “based on standard ABC” is not the best way to achieve interoperability, English said. “Tell the vendors what you need.”

Most industry experts agree standards are an effective method to achieve competition and interoperability.

English showed a slide that suggested ECC managers should ask vendors whether they can guarantee that their NG 9-1-1 solutions will be seamlessly interoperable with other solutions and carrier networks without additional upgrades, as well as share data with other companies’ products without special interfaces or costs.

Cohen said the Next Generation 9-1-1 Act of 2019 would authorize $12 billion in funding to help in the transition to NG 9-1-1. To be eligible for that funding, states would have to show that they are not diverting 9-1-1 fees to other uses and would have to use initial funding they receive to set up a sustainable grant fund.

Other goals of the bill would be to establish strong definitions of NG 9-1-1 and key elements, such as interoperability. The bill defines NG 9-1-1 as a system that “employs commonly accepted standards” but doesn’t define the standard to be used.

In June, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) announced it was taking comments on Version 3 of its i3 NG 9-1-1 standard, which it called an “open standard created through the collaboration of industry, academic and public-safety experts.”

In 2017, APCO and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) had a public disagreement over whether i3 is an official NG 9-1-1 standard but eventually “reached a consensus.”

At the meeting Oct. 8, APCO officials seemed to cast doubt on whether APCO considers i3 an NG 9-1-1 standard that ECC officials should ask for in RFPs for new equipment.

Cohen advised ECC officials to use objectives-based RFPs to achieve interoperability. “Any RFPs we’ve seen for ESInets (emergency services IP networks) and other pre-NG 9-1-1 deployments either lack a clear requirement for interoperability or leave the interoperability to be worked out later,” he said.

The association said it “stresses objectives versus standards and encourages innovation and competition.” APCO is working on guidance with more details to be released in coming months.

“We’re not saying to not reference any standards at all, but rather that RFPs should primarily establish objectives instead of seeking compliance with any stated standards alone,” Cohen said.

At least one 9-1-1 professional at the event said standards should be requested. “We have to approach this in a standards-based way,” said Bruce Romero, executive director at the Arapahoe County (Colorado) Emergency Communications Service Authority. “We must have standards.”

He used 9-1-1 location technology as an example where some companies, such as Apple in its new iOS 13 operating system, provide geolocation data suitable for NG 9-1-1 but it is not yet delivered by cellular carriers.  9-1-1 officials must ask carriers to provide the geolocation data, and standards are necessary for all the parties to be on the same page. 

“I believe i3 does address interoperability, and if ESInets are being put in without i3, then it’s a contract issue rather than a standards issue,” Romero said. “Canada just completed some testing on i3, and they have been successful.”

Joe Estes Sr., executive director of ADCOM 9-1-1, the 9-1-1 authority for Adams County, Colorado, said his agency is putting together a CAD-to-CAD system starting with four centers, but they want to expand to more centers. “We should be able to do that without going back to our vendor and developing a custom interface and spending over $100,000 to do that,” he said. “It shouldn't be that difficult to get the basic level of functionality we're looking for.”

Specific to indoor 9-1-1 location accuracy, APCO has advocated for a dispatchable location, including the room number, floor, street and city where a 9-1-1 call originates.

“Dispatchable location is very important, but I don’t think we can forget about situations where dispatchable location is never going to be possible — the pine trees of Aspen,” said Romero, who previously worked at the Aspen-Pitkin County (Colorado) Communications Center. “Dispatchable location is a great step forward and necessary, but we can never do away with Z coordinates that go with that.”

He said in a wilderness area, if there is uncertainty of 100 meters, it’s difficult to locate a caller. But if you have the Z coordinate, you know the caller is down the mountain or higher on the mountain.

“You can’t forget that element that many areas are going to need to see,” he said.

When asked about APCO’s stance on FirstNet and interoperability with other Long Term Evolution (LTE) and LMR networks and the proceeding on the topic pending at the FCC, Cohen said APCO doesn’t have a stance and didn’t file comments.

“As a general matter, APCO supports interoperability regardless of what sector you’re talking about, transferring a call or sending data about an incident,” he said. “Interoperability should also be available among first responders whether they are using LTE or LMR networks. We would refer to the FirstNet legislation.”

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