NG911 Lessons Learned from the Flint Water Crisis

June 27, 2016

Todd Piett

The Flint MI water crisis coming to light over the past year has captured the attention and fears of the nation.  For me, it has also brought to mind an analogy directly related to the move toward FirstNet and NG911 and even the work being done to improve FEMA‘s Integrated Public Alert Warning System (IPAWS / WEA).  The pipes in Flint continued to be able to pump water throughout the crisis.  The pressure was fine. When you turned on a spout, water flowed out.  The problem was with the usefulness of the liquid.

NG9-1-1 aims to create new system for handling calls for service.  It promises to enable new forms of communication, better routing and transferring of emergency calls, and even allowing data to augment call handling and dispatching effectiveness.  FirstNet aims to create a dedicated public safety broadband network, providing responders with the ability to access critical data and applications with the quality of service needed for public safety operations.  The latest work being done on the IPAWs alerting system, looks to improve the targeting granularity of cell broadcast technology while also investigating how the permission to send alerts can be further delegated down to a broader set of authorized users.

NG911 and FirstNet Need Useful Content

Each of these public safety initiatives are really about the pipes to deliver content.  Once those pipes are established, we need to look at what fills them.  Much like the tainted water in Flint was useless, the public safety applications built upon these new pipes are only as good as what flows through them.  From the increased risk of call spoofing or denial of service attacks on IP-based NG91-1- networks, to the challenges in interpreting new forms of content like video or cryptic text messages, making sure what is in the pipes is clean and usable is key.  In FirstNet, as we look at public safety applications for navigating through buildings indoors we need to think about how we collect and keep floor plans up to date.  While FirstNet may provide live biometric updates on fire fighters in a building, not being able to correctly find and get to them in an emergency makes the fact you know they collapsed nearly useless. For WEA alerts, the context and action-ability of the message is key.  From years of experience delivering over a billion emergency messages, I’ve seen numerous times how a poorly worded or confusing message can cause more damage than good.

From personal medical data, to up-to-date building floor plans and emergency contact data to a platform for easily distributing content across many different pipes, we are working to ensure you have the public-safety grade data and communication capabilities that can be the difference between life and death.  NG911 and FirstNet afford the opportunity to radically transform the interaction between responders, PSAPs and those that they protect with a series of layered, secure services.  As we budget for billions of dollars in putting in new pipes, we not only put in robust pipes but also make sure we have usable content flowing through them.

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