Since Sept. 11, 2001, the federal government has devoted billions of dollars to helping our first responders — policemen, firemen and hazmat teams — who are on-site dealing with emergencies. In order for the first responders to get to the scene, however, they need to be informed of the emergency. Statistics show that 95% of responses start with a 911 call from a bystander.

The 911 system is the citizen's link to emergency response. Unfortunately, this vital link that connects ordinary citizens with emergency response professionals has for too long been neglected on the federal landscape. Although Federal Homeland Security funding supports many necessary critical missions to protect the public, 911 funding is virtually non-existent. Now, Congress is starting to realize that those systems need help, too.

Countrywide, local agencies are coping with rapid technological advances. Cell phones, for example, pose some unique problems. In the U.S., more than one-third of all 911 calls come from a cell phone. Yet the technology that's needed to allow call centers to know where that call comes from does not exist in 60% of the country.

Even as the industry is trying to figure out that challenge, another one has emerged — voice over IP. The growth of broadband connectivity is fostering an explosion of VoIP telephone subscribers. Significant technological challenges remain to implement location technology in this service, not to mention the fact that many VoIP services cannot even connect to the 911 system. Ironically, as technology advances, the ability of the 911 emergency call system to connect and locate emergency calls is increasingly stressed.

Addressing these technology challenges requires greater public education and leadership at a local, state and federal level. It also requires more resources. The Government Accountability Office estimates it is going to cost $8 billion for public-safety answering points and wireless providers to upgrade to the E911 system. Most of this cost is being borne by state and local governments and service providers. Our government is committing billions of dollars to secure many aspects of our emergency response system — except for the link that connects citizens to local police, fire and medical personnel.

The congressional “first response” to the technology challenges to 911 came last year. The four co-chairs of the Congressional E911 Caucus — Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) — persuaded their colleagues to pass legislation, the ENHANCE 911 Act of 2004, which created the first grant program targeted at federal funding for E911 technology upgrades. The ENHANCE 911 Act of 2004 makes implementation of E911 a national priority and will ensure that the federal government will become a cooperative partner in making our nation's 911 emergency calling system the best possible.

While the bill earmarked $250 million annually for PSAP upgrades for the next five years, it didn't appropriate the money.

But passing that bill after a two-year effort was only half of the battle. The leaders of the Congressional E911 Caucus, and the E911 Institute members, have dedicated themselves this year to meeting the challenge to provide federal support to E911 services through the congressional appropriations process.

The ENHANCE 911 Act has helped to elevate 911 issues as a federal priority. The challenge now is for federal funding to support the initiative and help make our nation's 911 system the best possible.

Gregory L. Rohde is the executive director of the E911 Institute, a not-for-profit organization that supports the Congressional E911 Caucus in promoting E911 and emergency communications development and public policy education. He is the president of e-Copernicus — a telecommunications consulting firm.