Federal lawmakers need to take action to ensure that IP-based next-generation 911 (NG911) is deployed in public-safety answering points (PSAPs) throughout the nation to avert a “crisis” in public safety that would result from first-responder agencies continuing to rely on outdated technology, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told Congress yesterday.

“Public safety, as embodied by 911, is dangerously close to a crisis as the digital world passes it by—21st Century life saving is being blocked by 20th Century technology,” Wheeler said during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on FCC oversight, which was webcast. “We at the FCC have done all within our power to move the next-generation-911 capabilities of digital ahead ...

“We just completed a year-long process where we brought experts from around the country to spend a year developing a plan for what it [takes] to get to next-generation 911. We’ve submitted that task-force plan to this committee. Congress holds the key to whether there will be a next-generation 911, and we look forward to working with you to achieve that goal.”

Wheeler’s NG911-related testimony fulfilled a promise he made last month to the Task Force on Optimal PSAP Architecture (TFOPA)—the task force referenced in his opening statement—to address the need for Congress to take action to spur the transition from legacy 911 systems to an IP-based NG911 architecture. Last year, Wheeler called on Congress to pass legislation that helps PSAPs meet key NG911 challenges associated with funding, cybersecurity and geographic-information-system (GIS) mapping.  

The Senate hearing was conducted just a week after the NG911 NOW Coalition—a new group led by the National Association of State 911 Administrators (NASNA), the Industry Council for Emergency Response Technologies (iCERT) and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA)—called for the transition to NG911 to be completed by the end of 2020.

But senators did not focus on NG911, as hot-button topics such as net neutrality, spectrum allocations, cable set-top box rules and FCC jurisdictional issues dominated the three-hour hearing. Only Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.)—the committee’s ranking member—asked about NG911 progress, noting that “a call to 911 remains the most [important] call any of us will ever make.”

Another 911-oriented issue mentioned during the committee hearing was legislation introduced last month that would require that every multi-line telephone system (MLTS) sold, leased or installed in the United States allow direct dialing to 911 as the default setting. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai has been an outspoken proponent of such legislation during the past two years.

“I hope this bill becomes law soon,” Pai testified during the hearing.

Sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), the bill is known as “Kari’s Law.” The legislation is named after Kari Renee Hunt Dunn, who was attacked and killed in December 2013 by her estranged husband in a hotel room in Marshall, Texas. Dunn’s 9-year-old daughter tried to call 911 four times during the incident, but the call attempt did not reach a PSAP, because the child did not know that the hotel’s MLTS system first required her to dial “9” to get an outside line.