Congress passes E911 bill

National Emergency Number Association

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Legislation the Senate passed this week would create a national program office coordinating implementation of emergency 911 systems nationwide.

The Ensuring Needed Help Arrives Near Callers Employing (ENHANCE) 911 Act of 2004 was bundled with two other telecommunications bills and approved Dec. 8 about 10:55 p.m., said Steve Seitz, government affairs director at the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), which had been ardently pushing for passage.

The bill's main focus is creation of the E911 Implementation Coordination Office, which would develop, collect and share information about implementation practices, procedures and technology as well as help with plans and grants.

Ideas for the national office stem from a 2002 Federal Communications Commission-sanctioned study conducted by Dale Hatfield, an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who in earlier congressional testimony, said federal leadership could help ease funding and implementation problems for local agencies.

Officials at the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Transportation Department's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will operate the joint program office, but many details still have to be worked out.

The tricky part is funding the office, Seitz said.

"Our thought is there's enough discretionary money between Commerce and DOT that they should be able to start the office," he said.

The House passed the bill Nov. 20. Now that the Senate has approved it, the legislation goes to President Bush for his signature.

Proponents of the measure describe it as one building block in helping modernize an outdated 911 telecommunications infrastructure.

Enhanced 911 (E911) service has become a major issue on Capitol Hill in recent years. In early 2003, several Senate and House lawmakers formed a congressional E911 Caucus to raise awareness among their colleagues about the issue. Members of NENA and other groups have also lobbied for greater attention to the issue.

"NENA never gave up on passing the legislation this year," Bill McMurray, the group's president, said in a statement. "We knew the stakes are far too great."

Creation of the new office comes at the right time, Seitz said. It will be crucial in considering how next-generation technologies, such as voice over IP, instant messaging, Short Message Service messaging and Wi-Fi, are being used in society and to integrate them into the 911 infrastructure.

"I think we see that has to be brought in right away," Seitz said. "The timing for government on this, if you consider all the other new technologies voice over IP and on down the line, couldn't be better. Now the question is can we take advantage of it."

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