The public-safety community hopes the U.S. Senate enacts legislation shortly after the holiday break that many believe will accelerate the deployment of wireless enhanced 911 services nationwide.

Sponsored by Sens. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), the legislation calls for $500 million to be set aside for E911-related grants. More importantly, it would prohibit these grants being given to states that siphon E-911 funds collected from wireless subscribers and use them for other purposes.

Expected to pass, the bill has moved out of committee and is waiting to be moved to the Senate floor, said Burns spokeswoman Jennifer O'Shea, who called it a “feel-good piece of legislation” that has generated considerable interest among senators. “Since we just finished the anti-spam legislation, this likely is our next move technology-wise,” O'Shea said.

Should the Senate enact the legislation, lawmakers will have some work to do before a version can be sent to the White House. The U.S. House recently passed a wireless E911 bill with similar language to the Senate version, but the House calls for just $100 million in grant monies. That $400 million gap will have to be addressed before the bill is sent to President Bush for his signature, which is anticipated, said Richard Taylor, president of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA).

“We have heard this is an issue for the White House, and they are keeping their eye on it,” Taylor said. “My information is that, if this gets through Congress, the President will sign it very quickly. He has a great deal of interest in this.”

Just 18% of public-safety answering points (PSAPs) nationwide are Phase II compliant, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, despite the fact wireless subscribers have been paying monthly E911 surcharges in some states for more than a decade. That's because those funds often are directed to other uses, instead of paying for needed E911 education and equipment upgrades, Taylor said. “It is almost criminal that states would take this funding so lightly that they would divert it from 911, which is there to protect property and lives,” he said.

The situation is even worse than the USDOT's estimate indicates, according to Taylor. “Where there is Phase II compliance, it's usually with just one or two carriers, but the area might be served by six or more carriers,” he said.

A U.S. General Accounting Office report issued in November 2003 concluded that it likely will take “many years” to implement wireless E911 nationwide, given the current funding levels and the “coordination problems” associated with PSAP upgrades at state and local levels. The report also said emergency-management officials would be faced with a “geographic patchwork” of wireless E911 areas. “As Americans travel across the country, they will be uncertain as to whether their 911 calls will convey their location,” the report said.

New York State Assemblyman David Koon, who has been a vocal and tireless advocate for wireless E911 services, called the Burns-Clinton bill “a good start.” Koon has a personal interest in advancing wireless E911 deployments. A decade ago, his daughter was abducted and murdered; though she managed to make a 911 call from her wireless handset during the ordeal, the dispatcher and her supervisor were helpless, because the PSAP lacked the necessary location equipment and software. They couldn't even determine the cell tower.

“The federal dollars will especially help those states whose leaders aren't pushing for E911,” Koon said. “But it's going to take more than $500 million to get this done nationwide. If they can get $500 million each year, they might be able to get it done in five years.”