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Public safety has always been geocentric – even if you didn’t know it

A few weeks ago, during an interview on the topic of Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1), I was asked to comment on the following statement: “Public safety is becoming geocentric, and a lot of people are afraid of that term.”  I was somewhat perplexed by this; after all, public safety has always been geocentric.

Regardless of the incident, a 9-1-1 call comes in from a person located somewhere, reporting that there is an emergency situation somewhere.  The call is answered at the dispatch centre which is also located somewhere, and the appropriate emergency services are dispatched to where the emergency is occurring. As you can see, location (geo) has been—and always will be—at the core of public safety; this is nothing new. What is new, however, is how public safety is leveraging the science of where to be smarter, to make us safer and to deliver services with more efficacy.

Across Canada, the 9-1-1 industry is facing a critical and pivotal moment in its nearly 50-year history. Technology improvements and the need for better location accuracy are driving this historic evolution, where legacy, tabular-based 9-1-1 location databases are transitioning to geographic information system (GIS)-based capabilities to accurately route emergency calls to the appropriate call centre.  As a logical extension, GIS is identified as a vital solution element and requirement in an operational NG9-1-1.  The demand for authoritative, accurate and up-to-date location data is about to reach a new high.  In fact, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) publicly promotes the statement, "Emergency Help. Anytime, anywhere, any device."

In the context of legacy 9-1-1, public safety agencies have been collecting and maintaining location data in tabular form for decades to populate the information in their automatic location information (ALI) and master street address guide (MSAG) databases. This data is maintained at the street level, based on specific boundaries and street ranges with some interpolation to achieve address information.  Unfortunately, all too often, this data is maintained by multiple entities [local governments, Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers (ILECs), primary and secondary Public Safety Access Points (PSAPs), external agencies, etc.] for the same geographic areas (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Typical current GIS data workflow for 9-1-1.  PSAPs and carriers typically perform data aggregation in isolation from each other.  In many cases where a single provincial aggregator does not exist, multiple PSAPs are likewise performing data aggregation.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) mandates that MSAG and ALI databases be maintained by the ILEC under contract by the individual PSAP, but how that is done varies across the country.  In many cases, data aggregation by these carriers is done in isolation from the same work performed at/for the PSAPs and agencies for computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems. The result is a significant amount of duplication of effort in maintaining this data, with everyone using different versions, and nobody working from the same authoritative data.  From an emergency response perspective, this represents a significant risk.

NG9-1-1, on the other hand, will rely directly on GIS services to accurately identify, validate and route a 9-1-1 call location to the appropriate PSAP through various back-end geoprocessing functions. The PSAP relies on GIS services to accurately display the geographic location of the call, and GIS functionality within the CAD identifies the emergency services agencies available at the call location.

As organizations migrate from tabular databases to geographic databases supporting NG9-1-1, well-defined processes and procedures need to be followed, and we (the GIS community) have an important role to ensure everyone is working from the same authoritative data. To effectively support NG9-1-1, it is essential that:

  1. the required data be continuously updated and maintained at the authoritative source; and
  2. transaction-based aggregation be performed by the 9-1-1 Authority through a national, collaborative, open data exchange.

By “9-1-1 Authority”, I am referring to entities like NB 911 (New Brunswick 9-1-1). NB 911 is a provincial-level organization responsible for the coordination and aggregation of NG9-1-1 GIS data from authoritative sources (e.g. local governments). Through Esri technology and the GeoFoundation Exchange (GFX), NB 911 can efficiently perform GIS data quality control, transformation and aggregation from many authoritative sources. From there, the 9-1-1 Authority disseminates the data to the respective ILECs, primary and secondary PSAPS, agencies, etc., and it can do so more often – ensuring data used in delivering emergency services is at its most accurate (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Proposed NG 9-1-1 data management/flow, leveraging the GFX as a mechanism to exchange required data.

The strength of the above data management/flow is that it not only enables streamlined data flow and eliminates duplication, but through a 9-1-1 Authority, everyone—from the ILEC through to the maps in the emergency services vehicle—is working from the same authoritative data. 

The GFX is a national, collaborative, open data exchange for accurate and authoritative geographic base mapping data. It is designed to facilitate the coordination and modernization of Canadian base mapping. The GFX employs innovative, cloud-based services to coordinate the activities of authoritative base mapping producers, making base mapping activities more efficient, more cost effective and more responsive.

Lastly, I am honoured to be working with the National Emergency Services Working Group (ESWG), which is an open forum that is primarily composed of Telecommunication Service Providers, ILECs, PSAPs and 9-1-1 industry specialists working to addresses technical and operational implementation issues related to the provisioning of NG9-1-1 services in Canada. These folks are some of the smartest and most dedicated people I’ve had the privilege to work beside. Their work includes researching and determining the details and tasks to transition to NG9-1-1 and developing a transition plan in conjunction with respective provincial, territorial and/or municipal governments and agencies. 

Due to our broad industry knowledge and extensive reach in the local, regional and provincial markets, Esri Canada is participating in this effort to help examine the GIS work required to successfully implement NENA’s NG9-1-1 address and mapping standards. It is through the work and commitment of the entire Emergency Services Working Group that the Canadian public will be better served by a Next Generation 9-1-1 that effectively leverages the science of where.

If you have a question or comment relating to NG9-1-1, please leave me a comment below or visit our booth at The Twelfth Canadian Public Safety Interoperability Workshop (CITIG-12) being held December 2 – 5, 2018 in Toronto.

About the Author

David Hamilton is the Public Safety Industry Manager for Esri Canada. His efforts are focused on advising customers how to use GIS technology to improve all areas of public safety, specifically (NG)9-1-1, law enforcement, fire services, emergency medical services, emergency management, and search and rescue. Prior to joining Esri Canada in 2010, David managed the GIS for E-Comm 9-1-1 in Vancouver, and worked for the RCMP at the Integrated Security Unit for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games where he managed their Common Operating Picture. Being active has been a major part of David’s personal life; soccer, track & field, skiing, cycling, hiking and now kayaking are all among his favourite activities.

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