CHARLOTTE--Public safety answering points (PSAPs) and other 911-related entities are eligible to receive a portion of the $1 billion in interoperability funds being allocated during the next year, an official with the government agency overseeing the grant program said yesterday.

Thomas Hardy, an official with the emergency planning and safety division of the National Telecommunications and Information Association (NTIA), said improving 911 systems would be an appropriate use of the grant program, because doing so would enhance public-safety interoperable communications.

“The objective here is to help states use the 700 MHz spectrum between and among various public-safety entities,” Hardy said during a panel discussion at the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) conference here. “One of those public-safety entities should be 911.”

By law, NTIA is required to distribute the $1 billion in funding by Sept. 30, a mandate the agency has met by identifying how much of the grant money will go to each state, Hardy said. It is up to the states to develop plans to use the money by early next year, and PSAPs should take action to make sure they get their share of funding, he said.

“What I am suggesting here is that those who are involved with 911 in the states begin to go to those to the powers that be in their states to make sure that there is a 911 portion of the state plan that gets submitted to NTIA and [the Department of] Homeland Security to receive some of that $1 billion,” Hardy said.

Last year, NENA-supported legislation that would have mandated that the 911 system benefit from the $1 billion grant program—established with anticipated funds from the 700 MHz auction—was thwarted after other national public-safety organizations expressed opposition to the idea, stating that the money was supposed to be for interoperable radio systems. Hardy said the program should be open to a “broader interpretation.”

“The assumption is that we trying to encourage interoperable communications within public safety, and 911 is an integral part of your fabric of public safety,” Hardy said.

Patrick Halley, NENA’s government affairs director, welcomed the notion.

“The intent of the $1 billion program is more geared toward interoperable emergency communications,” Halley said. “They are starting to look at that definition a little more broadly, which is one of the things that we’ve requested they do.”

In addition, Halley expressed optimism that PSAPs will be able to begin applying for long-awaited grant money promised by Congress under the Enhance 911 Act of 2004. While the enacted measure authorized $1.25 billion to upgrade PSAPs nationwide to Phase II wireless E-911, no money has been appropriated to date.

That could change soon, as legislative proposals call for $42 million in funding for the next fiscal year and another bill would let NTIA distribute immediately the $43.5 million from the 700 MHz auction earmarked for PSAP upgrades, Halley said. Perhaps more importantly, the budget authored by President George Bush includes money to support the creation of a national 911 office, which should help the appropriations process.

“I think we’re going to see money come this time,” Halley said.

Greg Rohde, executive director the 911 Caucus, said the absence of appropriations to fund the Enhance 911 grant program has been a “source of frustration” for the past few years.

“The Enhance 911 Act was a very significant piece of legislation … but the first time you have Congress identify a federal source of funding to help PSAPs—something that should be a federal priority—it’s embarrassing when you don’t fund it,” he said.

While the original act is scheduled to expire in 2009, there is an effort to reauthorize the measure through 2014, Rohde said. A key to passing the reauthorization may be a change in the language of the law to let the grant funds be used for IP-based, next-generation PSAP upgrades, he said.

Allowing the 911 money to be used for next-generation upgrades would let all states participate in the effort, making it easier to garner support in both houses of Congress, Halley said.

“If we reauthorize it and update the purpose of the bill so that you’re not just focused on Phase II,” Halley said. “I think if we do it right and generate some interest, it will have a positive effect on increasing the sums of grant money available.”