A Holistic Approach to a Healthy 9-1-1 Data ManagementSystem

by Beth Ozanich

NENA’s News editor asked me recently to write an article about new trendsin data base management and it has taken me some real thinking to decidewhat I should write. I started with a survey of the things that I do everyday that are so different from the activities that occupied my time inthe past. This list was pretty interesting but didn’t point out any newtrends that could be revealed herein. [See “A Day in the Life…”in box]

Then I started thinking about how we used to accomplish our daily work,and what changes have taken place over the last decade that have had animpact on that routine. What I saw, from my viewpoint, was that ten yearsago we did all of our work on paper, and now we send new and correcteddata to phone companies electronically, following up with paper. We alsodo the data entry ourselves in this cycle. Nothing has really changed asto where the data comes from, how much research is needed to build it,and how we maintain relationships with the individuals who provide us withthe data that we require.

What we do notice, however, is that many of the new services that impact9-1-1 require some thinking about how data is managed in the 9-1-1 environmenton a grand scale. What I’m talking about here is taking a step back fromthe daily routine and detail that constitute 9-1-1 data base managementand thinking about the larger systems that exist that impact our work.I call this the Holistic Approach to a Healthy 9-1-1 Data Management System.

Please indulge me as I explain where my thoughts come from. When I startedmy professional career, I didn’t plan to be a 9-1-1 data base manager.I was trained to be a geographer, one who studies the systems and interrelatedcomponents that make up the human landscape. Some of my colleagues studiedthe physical systems that impact our world, such as landforms, hydrology,climate, and other environmental factors. I chose to study the people,their man-made habitats, demography, and eventually to explore the toolsavailable for analyzing and understanding the relationships between allof these various areas of study and interest. These tools include statistics,cartography, and some computer programming, all of which constitute whatwe now call geographic information systems, or GIS. The basic conceptsof 9-1-1 data management so closely resemble those of GIS development thatthe position I’ve held for the past ten years has an almost uncanny naturalfit.

In studying geography, I gained a strong background in the systems approachto understanding complex problems. I brought this concept with me whenI came to the 9-1-1 community, and once in a while it is useful to go backto your roots to understand where it is that you need to go next.

So bringing these previous life events back to the subject at hand,I’d like to share with you my thoughts on how 9-1-1 data management shouldbe changing to meet the new demands being placed on us by telecommunicationsreform, emerging technologies and the competitive marketplace in general.

No matter how far back I stand from the 9-1-1 data question, I alwayscome back to the grass roots level where data is created, or recognizedbefore it is brought into the automated environment. In the old days, webuilt geographic data within specific boundaries for each of our localexchange carriers. The boundaries were established by the Public UtilitiesCommission (in Texas) and aside from a bit of fuzziness along the bordersof these service areas, we were able to build street files that could besegmented to identify different telephone company service areas, as wellas sub-areas, such as central office boundaries, or even zip code areas,within each carrier’s coverage area. The form of our geographic data wasgenerally the MSAG, or Master Street Address Guide. It was quite flexibleas far as data sets go and allowed for relational data management, servingas the backbone for building selective routing data bases for 9-1-1 systemsfor more than a decade.

One of the shortcomings of the MSAG idea has been the way that “host”companies and “independent” companies share the master file.Basically, the host company holds the original copy of the MSAG, and othercompanies have copies of it. The problem associated with this is that thecopies quickly become “originals” within the independents shops,and the host’s original and independent’s originals get out of sync quiterapidly.

Telecommunications reform has taken away the boundaries that used todefine our data sets. In the emerging telecommunications environment, allcompanies will perform service delivery in all geographic areas. This iscalled competition, market choice, competitive access, overlay service,or any number of other things. What it means for the 9-1-1 data environmentis that we need to rethink the way that we build and distribute our baselevel data. And here is where the grass roots appear.

In the larger system of data development and long term maintenance ofdata systems, we need to reflect on where the data comes from and how itgets to where it is applied. As a regional data base manager, I must relyon individuals within each city in my region to provide plats, and regularreview of all data that goes into the 9-1-1 data system. This is wherethe data is created. We can do lots of different things with it, but wecannot lose sight of the origination point if we are to have data accurateenough to run our 9-1-1 life support systems.

In view of the fact that multiple local exchange carriers do and willcontinue to serve telephone customers in an overlay fashion within ourarea of responsibility, we must find a method by which all carriers mayaccess a centralized set of files to preprocess their customer record baseprior to depositing those records in the 9-1-1 network’s selective routingsystem. If we thought that the problem of synchronicity was bad in theold setting, it will get progressively worse when all service providerswork in all geographic areas. We can no longer allow multiple copies ofthe original MSAG to be turned into in-house originals for multiple dialtone providers.

NENA has made great strides in building a set of data standards thatcreate a level playing field for the commercial side of the 9-1-1 community.The purpose of standards is to create an environment where all the playersknow the rules. Standards help the equipment and service providers recognizeeach other’s output, and they help the purveyors of those services andequipment by allowing combinations of products that are compatible andthat can be combined in various configurations to meet specific needs.Standards benefit competition and, while the majority embrace them, thosewho choose to ignore them will surely lose market share in the long run.

In preparation for future needs relating to the provision of locationinformation for wireless 9-1-1 callers, our district has been buildingan electronic base map. This base map, which will be shared with otherentities through a regional GIS Consortium, will enable us to build accurateemergency service boundaries and to place the street segments representedin text form in the MSAG file in correct spatial position. This is a criticalactivity when we consider that wireless calls will be located based onmeasurements that identify earth coordinates. If we receive a coordinatepair as part of an automatic location information (ALI) record, we needto be able to use that information. We can plot it on a map, or we canconvert it into a “closest known address” with GIS tools availableright now. The Consortium acts as a standardizing influence so that allof us are working from the same source materials. It will not matter tous what platform each entity chooses to build their internal GIS applicationupon, as long as all use the common standardized data file for their basemap.

Back to that grass roots level data building process. We can receiveplats from our cities, transfer the information from the plats into ourGIS system, and then generate MSAG records for hard wired phone locations.We can use the same system to identify the correct spatial position ofstreets and addresses in the region relative to wireless positions.

The holistic approach that I’m moving toward here involves the eliminationof telephone company ownership of the master files and elimination of anyduplicated street records. There would be no “copies” circulated;all of the various players would come to this single source for validationand data integrity would be more attainable. The base map should becomethe source for graphic management of the master file, facilitating MSAGrecord generation from the process involved in maintaining the base map.Data resident in the GIS would be used for wireless call routing, graphicmanagement of various boundary files and street records, and eventuallywould be distributed to PSAPs to enable mapped ALI and wireless applications.

The resulting single source data file would be made available to multipletelephone companies, to a variety of private switch vendors and other dialtone resellers, to multiple departments within the thirty seven citiesserved by our district, and to other regional agencies involved in a varietyof activities, from elections and political subdivision to school bus routing.The key here is that we all share a common base map, and generate a commonmaster file from that base map. The data system can then be non-proprietary,an objective management function serving multiple needs.

Software interfaces can be built to affect this type of a holistic solution.We now have the Internet available to us to facilitate electronic communications.There are methods available for building safety nets and firewalls thatprovide secure data environments. By moving to a more systems driven approach,we can create a data environment that will carry us on into the twenty-firstcentury, ready for all those new activities and services that we haven’tthought of yet.

The system of data building used for the small piece that constitutes9-1-1 data management is truly a dynamic and changing entity. If we stepback and rethink our overall management practice it is possible to identifyand apply a cure for what ails our data systems now. This activity is farpreferable to slapping yet another band-aid on the current system.

Beth Ozanich is the Information Services Manager for Tarrant County(Texas) 9-1-1 District and served as NENA’s 1992-93 president.

(sidebar) A Day in the Life of a 9-1-1 Data Manager

One of the interesting things about 9-1-1 data management is that thereis never a dull moment. On a regular basis, new questions arise, situationsoccur that impact our daily work, and we never have the time to be bored,or to finish a cup of coffee while it’s still hot.

All kidding aside, things are really changing in terms of data managementactivities for 9-1-1. Our jobs were much easier when all we had to thinkabout were MSAG files and ESN boundaries. In a way, they are still theunderpinnings of our data management system, but the requests that comeacross our desks become more varied and imaginative all the time. Let medescribe a recent Monday morning at my desk.

I arrive refreshed after the weekend a few minutes before 8:00 am, startthe first pot of coffee and go to my office to check voice mail. Thereare three calls from private switch vendors all indicating that they areabout to plug in new service at apartment complexes in our service area.Would I please call them to let them know what they need to do to get theirresidential customer data passed through the system by the end of thisweek?

An alternative service provider (“New Age Telco”) has lefta message saying they will be offering service in all areas now servedby our largest carrier. Would I please send a copy of my MSAG so he canstart processing his records? Oh, and by the way, is there more than oneincorporated city in my county? ( We only had thirty seven at last count…)

One of the new PCS providers has left a message indicating they willbe testing their infrastructure during a six week time window. Would Iplease contact all of the PSAPs that might receive test calls and let themknow?

These folks always seem to call when we are not in the office, so Ireturn the calls, leave voice messages of my own since none of them arein at this hour. Then I go to the breakroom and grab a cup of that coffee.

I check the in-box. Some people still send paper mail to us. CellularCarrier “A” needs twelve more TN’s for routing into the network.The two cellular carriers are rapidly increasing the size of their networksto capture as much customer base as possible before the PCS companies hitthe market. We build their data the same way we have for the past ten years.We assign telephone numbers to each receiving antenna, assign routing codesto those “pseudo-ANI” numbers and build tower locations intothe data system to fool the system into routing the calls like any otherhard-wired call. Only nowadays, we have so many cellular phones out there,and so many calls to 9-1-1 from them, that the PSAP operators are beginningto complain about data integrity issues. It wasn’t so bad when only threeto five percent of our calls were from cellular phones, but now we seefifteen percent overall and twenty to thirty percent in specific jurisdictions.Location of wireless callers is a real problem, but receiving their actualANI is a critical issue right now. The FCC’s recent missive, and NENA’squest for the past four years, has been to move toward identifying andlocating wireless callers for our 9-1-1 call handlers. What impact willthis have on our sagging data systems?

The phone rings, and this call is from the Census Bureau’s local officeasking me if I can give him a correct street centerline file since the9-1-1 offices seem to have the best data on addresses he’s found anywhere.I thought this was another agency’s job, but since all of this informationis created at taxpayer’s expense, it does appear to be public. I explainto him that we belong to the North Texas GIS Consortium and that when wefinish annotating our new centerline file, we will deposit it in the Consortium’slibrary and that it will be available to his bureau then.

No sooner do I get off the phone than it rings again. This time it isa resident from a neighboring county who asks me to please assign an addressfor his daughter’s trailer house out on the back half of his property becausehe heard we did that sort of thing a few years back. I refer him to thecounty coordinator who can help him, and then listen to a few minutes ofhis frustration at having to call someone else.

At 9:45 the coffee is cold, and one of the phone company clerks is callingto ask why we don’t have Pearse Court in the MSAG file, because they havea customer telling them that their new house is on Pearse Court in Colleyville.We check the file for new streets and find that there is a Pierce Ct. inColleyville in the same subdivision and perhaps the customer spelled thename of the street incorrectly.

At 10:00, I give up on the coffee as a long time friend calls to saythat her job has been eliminated in a recent “downsizing” atthe phone company, do I know of any positions that might be available?This worries me because she is part of the group that really knows ourdistrict’s data. Who will be placed in her spot, or will anyone for thatmatter?

The business manager comes in and shows me an invoice to one of ourprivate switch vendors. It has been scribbled on because the apartmentcomplex name is different now than when we entered into the contract withthem. The vendor’s clerk wants us to change our bill to reflect the correctname of the complex — but this is the first we’ve heard about the newname.

Over the rest of the morning, we have a variety of calls.

An EMS service notifies us that they bought out another EMS companyand would we please update our screen translations to show the new companyname?

The Fire Marshall calls to set up an appointment to change his serviceboundaries, an annual event, and he’s giving us more than a week to makethe changes this year!

A PSAP manager calls to say he’s entering into a contract with anothercity for dispatch service as of the first of next month. We ask him to”put it in writing,” and he says, “After all these yearsyou don’t recognize my voice?”

A City secretary calls to say they just annexed 350 acres west of theircity, swapping the land with another city and what do I need to get thisinto the 9-1-1 system?

And it just goes on and on.