Senators' bill to ensure E911 funds

Congressional E911 Caucus

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Two senators from opposite sides of the political spectrum announced today that they are joining to introduce a bill aimed at keeping state governments from raiding funds dedicated for emergency 911 systems.

Sens. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) are introducing the bill, which also would establish a federal interagency committee to help coordinate Enhanced 911 (E911) activities with homeland security and other priorities. In recent months, advocates and lawmakers supporting E911 have testified several times on Capitol Hill that states have siphoned away money earmarked for cities and emergency dispatch centers, commonly known as Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs).

Landline and wireless customers pay a small surcharge on their telephone bills, and the collected funds are supposed to go toward improving 911 services. However, because many state governments are grappling with huge budget deficits, some have been dipping into E911 funds.

"There's been almost $2 billion collected in the last three years on 911 wireless surcharges; of that, about $300 million has been raided and there's been about 12 to 13 states who have raided the funds," said Stephen Seitz, governmental affairs director for the National Emergency Number Association, a Washington, D.C.-based 911 advocacy group.

"In some states, they've gotten used to using the money for other purposes," he added. "It's just part of their general revenue, and that comes down to a truth-in-billing issue."

The bill would address the raiding by authorizing a national fund of up to $500 million. But it would be available to municipalities and PSAPs through grants only if their state has not raided their earmarked funds.

"As Hillary Clinton described it today, she described it as a little bit of a squeeze play," Seitz said. "And what it is, in a sense, is hopefully creating the opportunity for locals to have access to these important monies, but at the same time put a priority on the state government that they need to spend the money correctly."

The creation of a national 911 program office will likely be housed in the National Telecommunications and Information Administration within the Commerce Department. It would help coordinate 911 issues with the Federal Communications Commission, the Transportation Department and other federal agencies. Seitz said it's similar to what Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) recently proposed to create a similar E911 office within the Homeland Security Department.

"Frankly, our perspective is we just want something. We want the ability to have a federal champion inside an agency or administration. We're just pleased to see the dialogue go forward," he said.

About 93 percent of the nation's PSAPs have E911 capabilities for landline callers, meaning systems can automatically display a caller's number and physical address and route it to the nearest first responder. But only 10 percent have the technology to get the same information from a cell phone caller.

"The first thing someone's going to do when they see someone or see an event or report a crime or save a life, [is] they're going to dial 911," Seitz said. "And when they dial 911, we need to make sure that works for all communications devices anytime anywhere."

Burns and Clinton lead the Congressional E911 Caucus, formed in late February along with Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and John Shimkus (R-Ill.).

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