This week, the National Emergency Number Association, National Association of State 911 Administrators and the 911 Industry Alliance jointly issued a policy statement that addressed the long-standing practice of state and local governments raiding funds collected to pay for 911 emergency communications systems. These groups pointed out that federal law requires state and local governments that impose 911 fees to use the money for the intended purpose. They also strongly urged state and local governments to “refrain from diverting 911 for unintended or unauthorized purposes.”

That’s fine. These organizations are advocates for the 911 sector and issuing statements such as this one, and lobbying lawmakers and policymakers, is exactly what they should be doing — and they do a great job. But asking state and local governments to cease the siphoning, particularly in this economic climate, is analogous to me telling my dog to stay out of the treat bowl after I’ve placed it uncovered on the coffee table and then left the room.

A while back Congress tried to discourage this practice by passing legislation that would make any state that diverted 911 funds ineligible for grants from the Enhance 911 Act of 2004, which authorized up to $1.25 billion for public-safety answering point (PSAP) upgrades. Unfortunately, that has had as much impact as the bark of a toothless dog, as Congress only has appropriated $43.5 million to date. Spread over 50 states and several territories, that money is hardly incentive to keep states from continuing the piracy.

Another problem, according to Jeff Robertson, executive director of the 911 Industry Alliance, is the grant program’s match requirement. “They don’t bother applying for the money because they can’t come up with the matching funds,” Robertson said. “That’s happened in a lot of cases.”

So is it any wonder then that the state of Wisconsin recently moved $20 million collected for 911 to its general fund? Or that the states of Oregon, Hawaii and Delaware also shifted millions of dollars collected for 911 to their general funds? What’s to stop them?

On that note, I asked Robertson whether the time had come for the federal government to wrest control of 911 funding from the states. He predicted that “there would be a ton of opposition to that.” One concern is that states with heavier political clout might be able to wrangle a disproportionate share of the money. “Also, you’d then have three tiers that could skim off the top,” Robertson said.

As a follow up, I suggested that the federal government at least take on an overseer role by performing audits of how the states use money collected for 911. I further suggested tougher sanctions, perhaps making pirating states ineligible for any federal money, including dollars targeted for roads, education and social programs. What good is a sanction, after all, if it doesn’t hurt?

“That would help,” Robertson said. “If you put a spotlight on it, even if it’s just the auditing process, that would be great, because then the public would see it and politicians thinking of putting their hands on those funds would know they’ll have to answer to somebody.”

Indeed, a big part of the 911 sector’s policy strategy going forward, Robertson said, centers on educating the general public on this issue. The thinking is that if the public is aware of the potential negative impact on 911 communications of these funding raids — for instance, the inability to locate wireless callers and/or to take calls from VoIP users — it will put pressure on lawmakers and policy officials to make substantive changes or risk being voted out of office.

It’s a great idea. The public instinctively believes that the 911 system is going to work without fail, every time. It would be good for them to know that might not always be the case. It also would be good for them to understand that states which divert funds expressly collected to operate, maintain and improve the 911 communications system to other purposes are — philosophically, if not legally — defrauding the public. While there is safety in numbers, there also is power.

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