Increased Connectivity Brings Cybersecurity Threats to 9-1-1 Call Centers

Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) systems will enhance the current capabilities of today’s 9-1-1 networks, allowing compatibility with more types of communication, providing greater situational awareness to dispatchers and emergency responders, and establishing a level of resilience not previously possible. NG911 will allow Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) to accept and process a range of information from responders and the public alike, including real-time text, images, video, and voice calls.

Beyond the capability to send and receive texts and multimedia, there are other benefits to the new types of networks. Public safety answering points (PSAPs) will be able to transfer calls and activate alternative routing to share the burden during an emergency or when they are closed by disaster.

But accompanying all these important benefits of the switch from analog to digital, one challenge looms large: the increased risk of cyber attacks on 9-1-1 call centers once they are connected to so many devices and other networks.

According to Emergency Management,

With the current generation of 9-1-1 networks, PSAPs have seen telephony denial-of-service attacks in which attackers flood a call center with calls to disrupt service. There have been more than 300 telephony denial-of-service attacks against public safety organizations, including PSAPs, police departments, hospitals and fire departments in the last couple of years. Along with the high-profile ransomware attacks on hospitals, several police departments also have been victims.

Jay English, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International’s (APCO) director of communications center and 9-1-1 services, said PSAPs could be vulnerable to distributed denial-of-service attacks, which attempt to make an online service unavailable by overwhelming it with traffic from multiple sources. “In order to take out a police department, the attacker has to obtain access to that police department and make a dedicated attack,” he said. “But in order to take out five police departments and five fire departments, a hospital and an EMS agency, all they really have to do is find one PSAP that serves all of them. A single attack could affect multiple responding agencies.”

Scott Somers, a professor in Arizona State University’s College of Public Service and Community Solutions, agreed with English that this is a far more complex and dynamic problem than we have seen historically. “This is not a one-time thing. It is not buying a device in order to protect a system; it is monitoring threats and addressing them as they emerge. It is a very dynamic concern.”

One approach PSAPs can take is to start collaborating more to share best practices and threat information, Somers said. “PSAP operators tend to be in law enforcement, EMS or fire bureaus, and their business is being first responders, so they may not have much knowledge about potential cyberthreats, and those threats are always evolving,” said Somers, who also served on the FirstNet Public Safety Advisory Committee and SAFECOM Executive Committee.

For more information, read the full story from Emergency Management.

At this year’s MACo Winter Conference, you can learn about best practices and challenges associated with the implementation of NG911.

Here are more details:

Title: Fighting Fire with Fiber? Connecting to Next Gen 9-1-1

Description: As 20th-century technologies phase out, counties must reinvent their emergency call systems. One key issue that must be addressed is how to fill the void of legacy systems that are no longer supported – through building costly and complicated fiber optic and wireless services to replace them. While the technology to implement Next Generation 9-1-1 is available now, there are many issues that local governments must work through relating to technology standards, the process of transition, governance, and funding. In this session, panelists will highlight local progress, identify gaps, and offer ideas on how to best move forward with building a statewide Next Generation 9-1-1 network.

Date/Time: Wednesday, December 7, 2016; 2:00 pm – 3:00 pm

The MACo Winter Conference will be held December  7-9, 2016 at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Hotel in Cambridge, Maryland. This year the conference’s theme is “An Ounce of Prevention.”

Learn more about MACo’s Winter Conference: