Senate Prepares to Modernize 911 Services

(Image: Shutterstock)

(Image: Shutterstock)

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation will introduce legislation that aims to fund and expand 911 emergency services at the insistence of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

“It’s a public safety priority for the Federal government and states,” said Bill Nelson, ranking member of the committee. “I will be offering for co-sponsorship in the near future legislation to promote the deployment of next-generation 911 services and to make this transition a success.”

911 emergency networks are dangerously out of date, according to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. He said that Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs), or 911 call centers, were designed to manage analog phone calls and are struggling to sustain the expanding digital landscape.

He said it is time for Congress to transition to the Next Generation 911 (NG911) first envisioned in 1999. While some industries and states have adopted parts of NG911, such as text-to-911 systems, many states lack the funding to evolve. Wheeler said the quality of 911 support will deteriorate if Congress does not apply NG911 on a large scale.

“There is a crisis cooking in our 911 networks. Our old 911 networks are under attack,” Wheeler said. “The benefits of IP networks are just not being realized.”

Americans call 911 240 million times a year, according to Jessica Rosenworcel, commissioner of the FCC. Seventy percent of those calls come from cellphones, rather than landline phones. Rosenworcel, who said the issue is personal to her because she lost a relative in the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, said the country’s 6,000 call centers need Federal funding in order to stay abreast of the digital age.

Texting to 911 is one of the most recent changes in emergency outreach. Rosenworcel said that, with the proper funding, NG911 can involve video communications so that people can provide real-time footage of accidents. According to Rosenworcel, one solution to mobilizing 911 modernization is ending fee diversion. State and local authorities collect about $2.5 million every year to support 911 services. However, Rosenworcel said that eight states funneled those funds to projects that had nothing to do with public safety, such as dry cleaning services for state agencies.

“911 is the first telephone number I taught my children,” Rosenworcel said. “It is a number that every one of us knows by heart but every one of us hopes that we will never have to use.  But use it we do. It is time to get this program up and running.”

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