Can 911 get with the times?

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While innovative consumer communications apps proliferate, the 911 emergency infrastructure remains stuck in the 20th century, and advocates are impatient for an upgrade.

The current 911 emergency communications system is "still the same legacy 911 system from 1968" with some "tweaks and Band-Aids," said Executive Director of the NG911 Institute Patrick Halley at an April 12 event his organization hosted in the Capitol Building.

The next-generation 911 emergency response system will offer a nationwide, IP-based emergency communications infrastructure that will enable voice and digital communications between 911 callers and call centers (called public safety answering points), then to responders in the field.

As it stands, only about 15 to 20 percent of the PSAPs can even handle text messages, much less the more data-rich communications of images and videos that the NG911 system plans to support.

In addition to providing better public safety, a modernized 911 system is critical to ensuring maximum efficacy of other major government projects, such as FirstNet, said Halley.

"Neither can work as well without the other," he added. "As we are empowering responders with modern technology, including the ability to receive and share video and images and other data, we have to make sure the 911 system is capable of doing the same thing, and make sure the two are connected."

But successfully coordinating such an overhaul requires funding and oversight.

"By far the majority" of funding for 911 services are "funded through fees on your phone bill… collected by state and local governments," said Halley, adding these fees "are only on phone bills, not broadband connections."

But Halley said that "not all that 911 fee money" that's charged on phone bills even "gets used to support 911" because state and local treasuries have the discretion to divert it elsewhere, which has slowed the development of the project.

To be exact, over the most recent five-year sample available, "diversion is beating next generation 911 spend" by a $701 million to $633 million margin, said Tim May, the NG911 projects manager at the Federal Communications Commission Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.

FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly suggested that one way to cut costs is to reduce the current number of PSAPs, which is around 6,000, by "one-third or one-half," and redirect that savings to the modernization of the remaining facilities.

Historically, federal funding has played a minor role in the 911 emergency communications system, but in order to combat this combination of challenges, Mark Reddish, the Senior Counsel and Manager of Government Relations, Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International, advocated for the federal government to provide a "big, one-time forklift to help transition to next-generation 911."

Laurie Flaherty, Coordinator of the National 911 Program at the Department of Transportation, added a federal role in the 911 system may be necessary because local governments alone cannot pull off the scale of interstate coordination necessary to stand up -- and secure -- an effective, national communication system.

Flaherty added that her program is currently compiling a cost study for the nationwide implementation of the next-generation 911 system due to Congress by September and is working with the Department of Defense to help secure the information collected at the PSAPs nationwide.

In addition to the next-generation 911 caucuses that already exist in both the House and Senate chambers, Executive Director of the Industry Council on Emergency Response Technologies George Rice thinks that the development of a modernized, national 911 system is "crucial" to President Donald Trump's infrastructure plans.

"The federal government could be a big catalyst" for the development cloud infrastructure and maintaining data collected by the 911 centers, he said. "The more ways we connect 911 to community development, to infrastructure projects, to the things that make America work as a functioning society, the better off we will be, and I think that will resonate with the administration."

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter


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