America’s 9-1-1 infrastructure is showing cracks, too
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Throughout the presidential campaign and now in office, the Trump-Pence team has emphasized the need to boost investment in our country’s critical infrastructure, and to do more to keep Americans safe. The nexus of these priorities is our nation’s 9-1-1 system.

Just like many of our roads and bridges, America’s 9-1-1 system is showing its age. Its capabilities are stretched to the limit, answering more than 650,000 emergency calls each day. But the system requires urgent attention and investment if it is to meet our communities’ needs in the digital age. 

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At a time when Americans are using smartphones, broadband Internet, and nifty apps to send staggering amounts of data, texts, photos, and videos, our 9-1-1 systems are still using last-generation, voice-centric technology, with the exception of some centers now capable of receiving text messages. Telecom companies are moving to Internet-Protocol-based networks, and the federal government’s FirstNet authority is developing a wireless broadband network for public safety field responders. But our 9-1-1 centers are becoming the weakest link in the chain, without any national commitment or process in place to modernize them. 

Next week, hundreds of 9-1-1 professionals and policy leaders from across the country are gathered in the nation’s capital to lobby for the vital improvements needed in our 9-1-1 systems. Their message is simple: It is time for policy makers at all levels to come together and accelerate the rollout of Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) technology nationwide.

With NG911 systems, callers will be able to send text messages and transmit photos, videos, and other forms of data to 9-1-1 centers, and call takers will be able to better coordinate responses. For example, a caller could send streaming video from a crime scene, or personal medical data about a deadly allergy – all of which would improve the 9-1-1 center’s ability to assist.

The handling of 9-1-1 calls will be much more efficient as well. In a NG911 system, 9-1-1 professionals will have the ability to transfer calls and associated data to other jurisdictions in the event of disasters, service outages, or misrouted calls. More than just “call centers,” next generation facilities will become integrated operations centers. NG911 also would more effectively withstand cyberattacks, share data with field responders, and locate wireless callers.

However, the nationwide transition to NG911 is proving difficult for several reasons.  

Inadequate, fragmented leadership and policy. Because 9-1-1 systems operated by local, county, regional or state authorities, a nationwide deployment of NG911 depends on educating, motivating and coordinating thousands of leaders at all levels. The federal government can and should be involved because public safety threats routinely cross state boundaries, and all Americans expect high-performing 9-1-1 services, no matter where they happen to live, work, or travel. 

Inadequate funding. The traditional revenue stream for 9-1-1 – state and local fees on landline phone service – has shrunk as more than half of U.S. households have gone wireless-only. Making matters worse, states often redirect the 9-1-1 fees they do collect to other purposes. Nearly $250 million was siphoned away in 2014, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

At the federal level, since 2001, Congress has provided $158 million for various NG911 pilot projects – which has been welcome support – but it’s an average of just $3 million per state spread over 15 years. During the same period, Congress has rightly supported the needs of field responders by appropriating more than $7 billion for the development of advanced radio networks and services.

A better funding model would provide predictable, adequate funding for NG911 from a mix of state and federal sources for both capital and operating expenditures, allowing for strong performance day-to-day and continuous improvement long-term.

The good news is that the technology and standards to make NG911 a reality are available today. Leaders of public safety, industry and government have been working for years on the details of the transition and have set an aggressive goal of full nationwide deployment by the end of 2020.

Getting there will require greater commitment and leadership from Congress, the Trump administration, and all levels of government. But getting there will bring our emergency infrastructure into the 21st century, strengthen our collective security, and provide better emergency service to more than 650,000 callers every day. 

For more information on gaps in the current system and recommended solutions, visit NG911Now.org. 


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.