There is a movement among state legislatures to re-appropriate dedicated funding for 911 systems in times of crisis to meet balanced budget requirements. This tendency is often shortsighted and serves to further compromise the integrity of current 911 systems – systems the public depend on in times of individual emergency as well as community crisis. State 911 Boards have embarked on disciplined, comprehensive, and farsighted undertakings to modernize their states’ 911 infrastructures. The ultimate purpose is to migrate public safety agencies to a more resilient, robust, and technologically modern system capable of being integrated into the entirety of public safety and first responder operations across the islands. This migration to Next Generation 911 (NG911) systems is a task that must be undertaken by the thousands of Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) across North America. Communications technology advances have rapidly mandated this movement to increase the reliability and functionality of 911 to all located users of mobile and data communication services.
911 in the Era of Pandemics
The current Corona virus pandemic has only highlighted the need for change. While the current 911 systems are still robust enough to manage the call volumes, it has amplified the shortcomings of the current E911 systems. In a recent interview, Brian Fontes, Executive Director of the National Emergency Number Association, states:
“This is the first time we’ve had something affect the whole country at the same time,” Fontes said. “Prior to this we had hurricanes, fires, tornados, earthquakes, where 911 can rally around and help those 911 centers that may be in harm’s way. Today with this pandemic, this affects everyone…..As we look at a post-COVID-19 environment, we have to take a serious look at how next-generation 911 is deployed and get it deployed nationwide so that we can move information and data from point A to B or from one point to multiple points and allow for virtual PSAPs to exist and to allow for seamless operations regardless of where people are….. In today’s world you can partner with another PSAP but you may not be able to move the data from one PSAP to the next and that’s requiring the second PSAP to reconnect with the caller to obtain information that may have been lost in the transfer.”
What It Will Take
Unified communications technology has been successfully implemented with proven results in productivity and cost reduction in the enterprise space. This same technology is what has enabled so many to work remotely during the current COVID-19 pandemic. A broadband connection into secured company servers and remote workers are connected to the company with access to all applications used in the office. However, this technology is only now slowly making its way into the public safety PSAP environment. The reasons can generally fall into one of several categories: financial, cultural, and operational. This article explores the financial impacts that will allow PSAPs to garner the same benefits of operating on a more modern, secure Emergency Services IP Network (ESInet) supported by Next Generation Core Services (NGCS) for 911 call routing. These two elements comprise the NG911 system and can be deployed in a variety of operational and business models. Agencies are typically doing due diligence in determining the deployment that will meet the needs of PSAPs and other emergency response agencies. Activities typically include developing a Deployment Plan that will serve as a road map to contract for and deploy NG911 services, modifying operational procedures, and training stakeholders on the new system. All of these activities need to be done while maintaining current systems. Typically, there is a transitional period where the two systems, with their own respective maintenance costs, will be in active use.
E911 is truly a mission critical system for all public safety agencies. As such, the Federal Communication Commission strongly discourages this raiding of designated E911 surcharges. Further, the FCC states that those entities that make a habit of appropriating 911 funds for other purposes may not be eligible for any federal public safety grant money.
Commissioner Michael O’Rielly writes in the FCC blog:
“Even if a state is just diverting current collections because it maintains underlying balances in an existing account, the diversion generally prevents new investment in costlier, future networks as states don’t want to deplete their accounts in total. In other words, just paying to maintain older, outdated networks does not allow for growth, advancement or new technologies. But we all know that significant investment – not just maintenance – is going to be necessary to develop and implement NG911 and Federal assistance in the form of grants under the Spectrum Act is rightfully precluded from going to diverting states.”2
Appropriating 911 funds reserved for this critically necessary and timely transition to NG911 services is a short-term and a risky solution to a transitory budget shortfall. It penalizes the PSAPs and first responders and does a disservice to the public’s trust as to the purpose and intent of the fees they are dutifully pay monthly on their phone bills to support a system they have come to rely on in times of distress and urgency.