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States are stealing funds from 9-1-1 emergency services — now they’ll be punished

States are stealing funds from 9-1-1 emergency services — now they’ll be punished
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Next week, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first 9-1-1 telephone call. That simple act helped revolutionize emergency communications. From it, we eventually grew a nationwide emergency calling system, which has helped make our communities both safer and stronger, saving countless lives in the process.

Today, no matter who or where you are, when critical life moments occur, Americans can dial 9-1-1 and know that help is on the way.

With the digital age, many of our nation’s 9-1-1 systems require upgrades. More calls now come in from wireless phones and pinpointing the location of those in danger requires updated technology and training for public safety personnel. Moreover, coming down the road are new capabilities, such as integrated pictures and multimedia, that could enhance emergency calling.

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Preparing for this future takes effort — and prudent funding. Unfortunately, we are unlikely to get there without first halting 9-1-1 fee diversion.

 

On our individual phone bills a line item is typically included for 9-1-1 service. It’s a relatively small fee that states and localities charge to support emergency calling services. But too many states are stealing these funds and using them for other purposes, like filling budget gaps, purchasing vehicles, or worse.

This is deceptive. After all, consumers are paying to support 9-1-1 calling but a portion of the fees are being diverted elsewhere. According to a recent report released by our agency, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), five states and territories suctioned almost $130 million from their 9-1-1 systems and another seven didn’t even bother to respond to our inquiry to examine their diversion practices. None of this is acceptable.

Moreover, the results of 9-1-1 fee diversion can be tragic. It can lead to understaffed calling centers, longer wait times in an emergency, and sluggish dispatch for public safety personnel. It also will slow the ability of 9-1-1 call centers to update their systems to support digital age technologies.

It’s time for 9-1-1 fee diversion to stop.

Fixing it should be easy. But with the responsibility for funding 9-1-1 chiefly a state-level duty, a concerted effort is required. This can start with ensuring that public safety programs in Washington are only available to those that do not engage in fee diversion.

Thankfully, we are already taking a step in that direction with a grant program tucked into the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act that is designed to kickstart key 9-1-1 upgrades. This program offers $115 million for states and localities seeking additional support for incorporating new technologies into their 9-1-1 systems.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which are jointly running the program, are prohibited by law from making these funds available to jurisdictions that have been diverting 9-1-1 fees. This can serve as a template for any other funds provided at the federal level, including in new infrastructure legislation.

Going forward, however, we may need to be more creative in order to build the right mechanisms to prevent fee diversion. This could include, for instance, precluding representatives from states that repeatedly divert 9-1-1 fees from participating on advisory panels and task forces that inform the emergency calling work of the FCC, NTIA and NHTSA. We also may need to examine more aggressive actions at the FCC’s disposal.

In the end, the time to commit to right this course is now. As we honor the 50tth anniversary of the first call to 9-1-1, we should do more than celebrate the history of emergency communications. We should fix the problem of fee diversion and in the process make the future of 9-1-1 even brighter.

Michael O’Rielly is a commissioner for Federal Communications Commission, serving since January 2015. He previously served as a policy adviser in the Office of the Senate Republican Whip.

Jessica Rosenworcel is a commissioner to the Federal Communications Commission serving most recently since August 2017. Rosenworcel also previously served as an FCC commissioner from May 2012 to January 2017. Prior to joining the agency, Rosenworcel served as senior communications counsel for the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.