Witnesses call for help at E911 hearing

Testimony at Senate hearing describes problems with deployment of a wireless 911 system

New York bill: Wireless 911 Local Incentive Funding Enhancement Program

In 1993, David Koon's daughter, Jennifer, was abducted and killed in Rochester, N.Y. The family had installed a wireless telephone in her car in case of emergencies, and Jennie had managed to call 911 for help. However the dispatcher was unable to locate her.

"The dispatcher listened helplessly to the last 20 minutes of Jennie's life," said Koon, a New York state assemblyman who testified before the Communications Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on Enhanced 911 (E911) issues.

The March 5 hearing followed last week's launch of the bipartisan, bicameral Congressional E911 Caucus to raise awareness of the issue among federal lawmakers. While 99 percent of the country's population has access to basic and enhanced 911, there are still gaps and deployment of a wireless system is slow.

Reasons, said several congressional witnesses, include lack of political will, poor coordination among the groups needed to implement the complex system and little money.

"This is an issue of political will and funding," said John Melcher, president of the National Emergency Number Association, a nonprofit group dedicated to E911 deployment. "And where the former is present, the latter will follow."

Since 1991, New York has been collecting monthly surcharges — now totaling $200 million — on wireless telephone bills to finance the deployment of a wireless E911 system. However, not one cent has been disbursed, Koon said, and that may be due to the current budget woes.

To remedy this, Koon introduced legislation to change how the state funds deployment of wireless E911 technology. Modeled after Virginia's program, his legislation, which passed the state assembly Feb. 24, would create the Wireless 911 Local Incentive Funding Enhancement (LIFE) Program.

LIFE would require local Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) — emergency dispatch centers in 911 parlance — to submit a written and financial plan with an implementation timetable to the New York State 911 Board for approval.

Once approved, the local centers would be eligible for funding for system equipment, software and hardware. Bonds would be issued and debt service would be paid from the existing state wireless surcharge. The current legislation will allow localities to receive funds prospectively to achieve quicker access to technology, he said.

Two commissioners from the Federal Communications Commission testified that their agency is absolutely committed to wireless E911 deployment and would step up enforcement of wireless carriers to comply with rules.

"There's no higher calling or higher priority at the FCC than E911," said Jonathan Adelstein, adding that the commission could use more resources for enforcement.

However, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said the FCC previously "sent the wrong message" by granting waivers to carriers to delay compliance.

The commissioners announced the launch of an Enhanced 911 Coordination Initiative and scheduled an April 29 meeting that would bring together representatives from the public safety community, wireless industry and other stakeholders to devise strategies for deployment.

S. Mark Tuller, a vice president and general counsel with Verizon Wireless, said his company is committed to deploying E911 by working with local dispatch centers and selling E911-capable phones to their customers.

However, he said that when his company has been ready to implement the service, local dispatch centers have not. "Additionally, we found the PSAPs have frequently requested service on the expectation that they would be ready in time for us, and yet in reality they did not have the proper funding or resources to go live. This means our effort was misprioritized or wasted."

He added the method for funding E911 is inadequate, unfair and wasteful and requested that Congress do something to resolve the funding and other problems.

"To be blunt, the diversion of funds that we must collect from our customers under the label of '911 tax' is akin to false advertising by some governments," he said referring to New York and several other states.

NEXT STORY: CACI moves into 'shadows'

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