LAS VEGAS — When you speak to Greg Rohde, the executive director of the E-911 Institute, you can hear the frustration in his voice. When you look into his eyes, you can see the fire that burns within. The frustration stems from his belief that the 911 sector should be much further along the path to its future. The passion is borne from a firm belief that the future is exceedingly bright and eventually will be realized.

I spoke to Rohde yesterday during the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials’ annual conference. We spent a lot of time talking about what’s gone wrong, starting with Congress’ failure to appropriate the money it authorized in the Enhance 911 Act of 2004. The 911 sector was supposed to get up to $1.25 billion over a five-year period, but so far has received just $43.5 million. Some of that money was used to establish a national coordination office. The rest is being doled out to the states in increments based on population. Less-populated states will receive just $500,000.

“That’s not a whole lot of money,” Rohde said. “It’s going to help, probably, to get a few things started. But it is by no means anything close to a solution to address the major challenges [public-safety answering points] face.
The problem with getting things started is that there is no guarantee that additional grant money will be made available to finish the project, a notion to which Rohde readily agreed. “What does a state like North Dakota do with $500,000? I’m sure that they could find a good use for that, but if that’s all they have on the horizon, its usefulness is much less than if they could use the money for the first phase of technology [deployment] and then go for the second phase next year.”

Rohde also expressed his dismay with how long it has taken for the federal government to disburse the money. “It is disappointing that it has taken 18 months to get the money out the door … after Congress freed it up. It shouldn’t take that long. There are a lot of roadblocks that pop up … and I don’t know what the difficulties were. But 18 months is an awful long time to wait for $43.5 million.”

I asked Rohde whether Congress dropped the ball regarding 911 funding, and he didn’t hesitate in answering, “Yes.” But he also pointed a finger at public safety, saying that the sector needs to help itself by presenting a united front to lawmakers and policy-makers.

“The public-safety organizations have to learn to work closer together,” Rohde said. “From my vantage point, being with an organization that is trying to work with all of them, it is a major detriment to public-safety communications that the organizations are not working as closely together as they should be.

“They have to figure out a way to be more cooperative and collaborative with each other. I know there are significant differences between the organizations on certain issues, but their leaderships must find a way to resolve those differences.”

The reason this is so important is that there is a lot of competition for the attention of lawmakers and policy-makers and, in the case of the former, the dollars they control.

“Public safety is competing for federal dollars against entities that are much better organized,” Rohde said. “What happens is that other interests get Congress’ attention.”

To illustrate his point, Rohde pointed to Congress’ reallocation of 24 MHz of spectrum to public safety for the purpose of building a nationwide, interoperable communications network.

“That was 12 years ago. In contrast, it took the European Union three years to get from the point when they decided to do their very first pan-European spectrum allocation to this year, when they issued the licenses for that spectrum,” he said. “Twenty-seven countries were able to get together, resolve their differences and hand over their licensing rights to an international body — the European Union.

“We’re 12 years along, trying to do a nationwide network, and we’re still bickering about basic, fundamental issues. This is a failure. It is a failure not only of government, but also of the public-safety community, by not coming together.”

All of that said, Rohde remains very excited about the future of 911 communications in the United States because the technology — which is developing at “breathtaking speeds,” he said — is so incredibly cool. He told me of a deployment in Spain, where PSAPs are able to remotely activate the video function on a caller’s wireless phone if it is 3G-enabled. They then can transmit the video captured by the caller simultaneously, in real-time, to police, fire and EMS responders while they are en route.

“That’s not pie-in-the-sky technology. It works. And it works over a commercial network,” Rohde said. “This is a public-safety entity that has completely embraced the potential of bringing in video to enhance emergency response.”

If that’s not enough to end the bickering, I don’t know what would be.

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