By James Careless

With its ability to work with voice, photos, videos and text messages, there is no doubt that Next Generation 911 (NG911) is a massive improvement over the existing 911 system that can only handle voice calls and only provide locations for landline numbers. The problem is that implementing NG911 costs money, and that is something that many small PSAPs (public-safety answering points, aka local 911 call centers) just can’t afford under their current funding schemes.

This NG911 gap between large and small PSAPs is a major concern for Roxanne VanGundy, 

Director of the Lyon County Emergency Communications Center in Lyon County (2022 population 31,398), Kansas. “Small rural/remote PSAPs have many of the same challenges as the big urban PSAPs,” she says. “This is why small PSAPs should have the same opportunities to implement NG911 technology and get the benefits of this new technology, for the sake of the residents they serve along with local first responders.”

The Funding Conundrum

“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride” is a 17th century Scottish proverb. Reformulated for a 21st century public safety context, it might go like this: “If money wasn’t an issue, then all PSAPs would get NG911.”

Unfortunately, money is an issue — especially for many small PSAPs who lack the funding to implement NG911 themselves. “We are fortunate in Kansas, because we have access to statewide NG911 funding,” says VanGundy. “But for those small PSAPs without NG911 money from the state, convincing their local governments and sheriffs to fund this improvement can be very difficult. There is a lack of understanding about why it’s needed. People don’t want to take the money out of their limited tax revenues, let alone raise taxes to pay for it. That’s where building that understanding is crucial. Explaining why it would help them to be able to find someone within three meters, rather than a cell tower location. Unless some sort of statewide or nationwide impetus exists to extend NG911 to everyone, small PSAPs are going to have a hard time rolling out NG911 services. This puts their people and their first responders at unnecessary risk.”

Why All PSAPs Should Care

Of course, big urban PSAPs have problems of their own, even when their access to NG911 funding has been assured. So why should they care about small PSAPS, and join with them to advocate for NG911 funding for everyone?

The answer, says VanGundy, is that many large PSAPs interact with small PSAPs on their mutual borders, with many calls involving moving vehicles being shared across jurisdictional lines. “If the smaller PSAPs don’t have access to NG911 technology, it can really cause problems for larger PSAPs who do,” VanGundy says. “It’s like being on broadband internet, and having to work with someone still on slow-speed dialup. It is impossible to be truly interoperable with each other and serve the public properly when one PSAP has NG911 and another doesn’t.” (Editor’s note: As of 2021, the US Census reported that 375,000+ Americans are still forced to use dialup to access the internet, due to a lack of available broadband in their communities.)

Making a Difference

It will take a spirited effort by the public safety community to mobilize popular support for nationwide NG911 in America, and to get the politicians who control the public purse onboard. This is why Roxanne VanGundy has decided to run for a seat on the National Emergency Number Association’s (NENA) Board of Directors.

“I think NENA has really good governmental access on the federal level, and is in a position to push for nationwide NG911 funding if we steer the association that way,” she says. “To make this happen, NENA needs to remind Washington that small PSAPs deal with the same type of life-threatening emergencies that big PSAPs do — and that every one of the people we serve are Americans. That’s why all PSAPs need to be able to afford to implement NG911, which is a message that NENA can drive home with the right directors at the helm.”

A Moral Imperative

One thing is certain: Ensuring that all PSAPs big or small are NG911-capable is as much a moral imperative for Roxy VanGundy as it is a practical necessity.

“When you work at small PSAPs as I have, you find that the dispatchers there care deeply about their communities because — nine times out of 10 — they know most of the people they’re serving personally,” she says. “It’s huge for small PSAP staff to get the NG911 tools that they need to be successful and to serve their communities just as well as large PSAPs serve theirs. It shouldn’t matter if you’re a farmer in Kansas or a stockbroker in Manhattan. Everybody needs to have access to the same level of NG911 service and the right to expect that 911 is always going to serve them correctly. NENA can help make this happen, and I hope to be a part of helping them make it happen.”