Back in April, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on a 78-year-old man whose wife called 911 when he had “serious trouble breathing.” The ambulance arrived in 13 minutes — 6½ minutes is the goal set by city officials for “high-priority” calls — and emergency medical technicians were not able to revive the man, who died of heart failure.

Further, the Chronicle analyzed 200,000 high-priority calls since February 2004 and found that 439 San Franciscans had died waiting for late-arriving ambulances. Moreover, San Francisco's 911 center failed to meet the city's goal of dispatching first reponders within two minutes of an emergency call 57% of the time, the paper said. A plethora of reasons were cited for the delays, including too many emergency calls, a shortage of call-takers, too many calls from non-English-speaking residents and the lack of a GPS system to locate the nearest ambulance.

In this issue, we report on the ways in which next-generation 911 technologies will make public-safety answering points more effective. We also report on the myriad challenges that stand in the way of the exciting future. Chief among them is funding, which long has been a bugaboo for the PSAP sector.

Brian Fontes, the newly named CEO of the National Emergency Number Association, thinks he has the answer to the funding problem. He suggests that Congress establish a univeral service fund to generate the money needed to bring 911 call centers into the future.

There is precedent for such an approach. In 1997, the FCC required all telecommunications providers to pay into a newly created Universal Service Fund to ensure that the requirements of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 were met. The legislation mandated that citizens residing in rural, low-income or high-cost areas have access to comparable services, at comparable rates, as those enjoyed by urban dwellers, who benefit greatly from the economies of scale generated by population density.

While access to affordable wireline telephone service enriches lives, a well-functioning 911 system saves them. Fontes is on the right track — and Congress should get on board.