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New 9-1-1 Board executive director offers update on reform

By Josh Curtis, AAC Government Affairs Director

Implementing new laws passed by the legislature can be difficult. However, partners make it a lot easier. Many people were involved in passing the 9-1-1 reform bill in 2019, but one OEM director was especially involved. C.J. Engle attended meetings, testified in committee, and provided research and expertise on the nuts and bolts of 9-1-1 systems. His leadership among his peers played a big factor in the success the counties had passing the Public Safety Act of 2019. C.J. was in line to be appointed to the newly created 9-1-1 Board by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, but his life took a turn. He was offered a job by Southwest Airlines. He took the job in Dallas, but the pandemic caused the airlines to suffer. C.J. began to wonder what his future looked like. The Arkansas 9-1-1 Board was looking for a new executive director, and he applied. “When C. J’s. resume was forwarded to the board, several members were excited about his interest due to being familiar with his work in the state,” said Greene County Judge Rusty McMillon and 9-1-1 board member. “We were confident that he had the background knowledge of Arkansas’ 9-1-1 struggles and the poise to navigate the challenges in front of us. Having worked with him on 9-1-1 legislation and being familiar with his partnership with my emergency manager, I knew we had the right person for this position.”

C.J. and the 9-1-1 board are the partners that will help counties navigate the complex issues that derive from 9-1-1. Let’s hear directly from the new Arkansas 9-1-1 Board executive director:

It is an honor to have the opportunity to return home and get back to work with the 9-1-1 community. The past two months have been a whirlwind as we have hit the ground running with key projects of the Arkansas 9-1-1 Board. Act 660, The Public Safety Act of 2019, is the foundation for the state, and it is vital that our preliminary work effectively sets the tone for the projects at hand. The Arkansas 9-1-1 Board has 12 members that truly care about emergency communications in Arkansas, and I am appreciative of their trust in me to lead 9-1-1 into the future. I look forward to not only working with the board, but also with all of those within the 9-1-1 community. Having those existing relationships and developing new ones with leaders in the local 9-1-1 community will provide a broader perspective and benefit to the decisions the board will be responsible for over the next several years.

As we have initiated several key responsibilities of the board, there are already several positive results from Act 660. One of those being the increased funding for 9-1-1. Funding has been a major deficiency within the industry for years, but with the increase of wireless, voice over IP, and prepaid charges, we have seen a substantial reduction in the amount of local tax dollars that counties and cities are subsidizing for emergency communications. As a matter of fact, we can expect to see nearly $45 million distributed in 2020, up from just over $20 million in 2019. Another positive outcome from Act 660 is the creation of the Arkansas 9-1-1 Board. This state level entity with representatives from across state government, local government, and the public safety sector will allow for further standardization and advances in 9-1-1 services across Arkansas.

As part of The Public Safety Act of 2019, the board is required to oversee several developments to deliver the best public safety communications and services possible to our citizens and first responders. One of those key ventures is to develop a Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) system. With constant improvement and advancements of digital technology, emergency services in Arkansas and much of the nation have been left behind. While the public’s expectations continue to rise for a 21st-century emergency response, many of our systems and models are trapped in the 20th century. Our public safety answering points (PSAPs) still utilize legacy 9-1-1 copper line and selective router technology that is becoming more costly and difficult to sustain. NG911 will allow our citizens to share much more detailed information including videos, images, or texts with our PSAPs. The network also enhances caller location data through improved Geographic Information Systems (GIS) records and improves our interoperability for emergency communications centers to connect with one another, which also improves resiliency. To shift to NG911, the board will be sourcing and contracting a vendor to build out an Emergency Services IP Network (ESInet) across Arkansas and to provide Next Generation Core Services. The Request for Proposal (RFP) process for ESInet and NG911 is underway and in state procurement review. The Arkansas 9-1-1 Board also has signed an interagency agreement with the Arkansas GIS Office to improve GIS data, including emergency service boundaries in order to prepare for NG911 implementation.

Another responsibility of the Arkansas 9-1-1 Board, through the Public Safety Act of 2019, is to develop and present a plan by Jan. 1, 2022, to provide funding for no more than 77 PSAPs in the state. The board has contracted with Federal Engineering to provide additional expertise and to assist with this design. Federal Engineering will be working closely with the board to perform a feasibility study of the best direction forward for the currently more than 120 PSAPs in Arkansas. In November, we had the opportunity to facilitate five regional PSAP Consolidation Workshops in order to gather feedback and engagement across the state. It is imperative that data and input from government leaders and the 9-1-1 community is collected and evaluated throughout this process to ensure the most effective and efficient plan is presented.

As we move forward and act to advance our 9-1-1 infrastructure capabilities, it is crucial that we also enhance our guidelines and standards for Arkansas PSAPs. We will continue to evaluate future demands within the industry such as potential training needs, state contract opportunities, and additional funding prospects. It will be necessary to provide the appropriate resources and development tools within our local PSAPs to assist in the effective realization of the overall 9-1-1 vision.

While the tasks at hand may be large — and we face several challenges ahead — positive strides are being made for emergency services. We are committed to serving the emergency communications community and ensuring that every citizen or visitor to Arkansas is afforded the same elevated level of service, regardless of where they are within the state, when they dial 9-1-1.

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