Shimkus answers his calling
- By Dibya Sarkar
- Mar 21, 2004
Congressman John Shimkus's Web site
Rep. John Shimkus, a four-term Republican representing most of southern Illinois, knows firsthand the critical need for a national wireless 911 that will connect rural America with an emergency help service. A few years back, he was driving home to Collinsville, Ill., at night from Springfield, Ill., on Interstate 55 and saw smoke billowing out of another car.
He pulled over and called 911 from his cell phone. Because technology wasn't available in the area to pinpoint his exact location, he had to describe where he was. "I knew I was on the interstate, but I had no idea what mile marker. I just had a general idea," he said. "And fortunately the guy wasn't hurt — he was out of the car — but his car was pretty smashed up."
In another incident, he relayed directions to a police dispatcher to help another motorist in an accident. Many public safety call centers or answering points throughout the country haven't installed technology that can identify a wireless caller's location. In southern Illinois, Shimkus said, you could go off the road into a cornfield and not be found.
"Those are the stories that are out there," he said. "People unfortunately die because they're in a snowstorm, can't tell people where they're at, and they're only a couple of hundred yards from a plowed highway, but they don't want to leave the vehicle."
But there are success stories, as well. And Shimkus, who's followed the issue since he was a county official, has been a champion for the cause since Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) asked him to sponsor legislation designating 911 as the national emergency number.
The bill was signed into law in 1999, but Shimkus has been pushing for rapid deployment of the system since. He particularly supports technology that would identify and locate wireless callers. To do that, he and House colleague Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), along with Sens. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), formed the Congressional E911 Caucus last year.
Shimkus and Eshoo also cosponsored legislation that would provide grants, planning and coordination to local 911 call centers needing equipment upgrades, infrastructure and training. The House approved the bill late last year. Although the Senate has yet to vote on a companion bill, Shimkus is confident it will become law.
Stephen Seitz, governmental affairs director for the National Emergency Number Association, a 911 advocacy group, said Shimkus has maintained his conviction for ubiquitous coverage since the beginning.
"He has been consistent over time, reminding [his colleagues] of the importance of this issue," Seitz said. "He understands how [the technology] should be used, and that's more important."
Shimkus, who's also a member of the Congressional Internet Caucus and is a strong advocate for broadband, was first elected to Congress in 1996. His first year was chronicled in a PBS documentary called "Mr. Shimkus Goes to Washington" — a real-life look at the trials and tribulations of a lawmaker's initiation into Congress.
Shimkus serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and on four of its subcommittees, including Telecommunications and the Internet. He's also involved in health, education and children's issues, including cosponsoring the successful dot-kids domain legislation.
Shimkus entered Congress during a rapid period of technological change around the country. He said he understands it can be used to deliver better communication and customer service. But Congress should be as technologically neutral as possible, he added. Lawmakers shouldn't draft and legislate exact technology because it advances quickly but should establish guidelines and standards.
With E911, he favors a collaborative approach among local, state, federal and business stakeholders. It's easy to point the finger at the problems, but the reality is that the issue is complex for each region. The way to solve it is working with people, he said, crediting his House and Senate colleagues, 911 advocates and his staff for helping him advance the issue.
"It's really embarrassing how little I actually know of the actual technology.
On-the-job training is what you have to develop," Shimkus said. "I think people who know me here know I work real hard and attend hearings, and I do my reading, and I learn a lot from that."
The John Shimkus file
Job position: Republican House member representing Illinois' 19th
congressional district; currently in his fourth term.
Career highlights: Served as an infantry officer in former West Germany and in the United States. Taught government and history at Metro-East Lutheran High School in Edwardsville, Ill. Served as a Collinsville Township trustee from 1989 to 1993 and as Madison County treasurer from
December 1990 to January 1997.
Education: Bachelor of science degree in general engineering from the U.S. Military Academy in 1980; teaching certificate from Christ College in Irvine, Calif., in 1989; master of business administration from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville in 1997.
Family: Married to Karen Murth, a classically trained musician, since 1986. They have three children.
Hobbies: "If I have a hobby, other than playing with my kids, it is trying to play pickup basketball."
Last book read: "Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America" by Yossef Bodansky.