A good week for public safety on Capitol Hill
Recently in this space, I wondered just how long it would take the U.S. Senate to pass a telecom package approved by the House last month. The bill contained an important provision aimed at accelerating the upgrade of public-safety answering points nationwide to bring them into compliance with the FCC’s Phase II requirements, which require PSAPs and wireless carriers to identify the location of wireless 911 callers.
As it turns out, the answer was, “not long at all,” as the Senate passed the telecom bill last Wednesday. It also passed an intelligence-reform bill that includes a non-binding resolution calling for Congress to address the digital-television transition next year to clear broadcasters from the 700 MHz band for commercial wireless carriers and public safety entities.
The PSAP provision in the telecom package is identical to the bill introduced in the Senate by Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) in June 2003 — legislation that never reached the floor for a vote, despite reportedly strong support amongst senators and the intense lobbying efforts of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). It would create a national coordination office that would oversee PSAP upgrades, provide $250 million annually for the next five years to help fund the upgrades, and would make states ineligible for the federal grants if they divert to other purposes monies collected from wireless subscribers to support E911. Reportedly, some states have authorized using E911 funds to purchase police uniforms.
Given that the Burns-Clinton languished for a year and a half, I didn’t think there was any way the Senate would take action on it so soon. I wasn’t alone.
“I’m very happy they took action, but I’m very surprised,” said New York State Assemblyman David Koon, who has lobbied long and hard for E911 funding reform. “I made several calls over the past couple of weeks and it didn’t seem as if it was going to move.” Koon’s daughter was abducted and murdered more than a decade ago. She somehow made a 911 call while captive, but the local PSAP lacked the technology needed to pinpoint her location.
Koon praised the efforts of Clinton, who he credited with “breaking the logjam.”
“She negotiated with Sen. (Robert) Byrd (D-W.V.) and Sen. (John) McCain (R-Ariz.) — they were the two holding it up — and she was somehow able to get it through,” Koon said. “This is going to save a lot of lives in this country, and I’m just really, really happy the federal government is finally stepping up to the plate and doing something about it.”
NENA President Bill McMurray told me last week that his sources on Capitol Hill had indicated the Senate was too focused on the intelligence-reform bill to pay any attention to the telecom package before the holiday break. “We had people telling us it was impossible, that it wasn’t going to go anywhere,” McMurray said. “It didn’t look good, but we decided to stay and fight.” McMurray praised the efforts of Steve Seitz, NENA’s director of government affairs, as well as Anthony Haynes, regulatory and legislative committee chair and David Jones, first vice president. “I’m very proud of our team that fought to the end.”
Also fighting hard to the end was Burns. “It did take a long time and, of course, he would have liked to have seen it passed sooner, but there’s a reason he stuck with it,” said spokesman Grant Toomey. “The Senator is not the kind of person who gives up on something he thinks is important.”
Nevertheless, Toomey acknowledged he too was surprised by Wednesday’s Senate vote. “All day long, I was working on the intelligence bill and didn’t hear word one about E911,” he said. “I left the office at the end of the day thinking everything was closed up, then got an e-mail three hours later saying E911 passed.”
Ironically, Toomey thinks the focus on the intelligence-reform bill might have helped get the telecom bill passed because both pieces of legislation share a synergistic purpose — keeping Americans safer. “My guess is that the senators’ minds were working that way,” Toomey said.
Koon reminded that more work needs to be done before PSAPs can start counting the money. The telecom package merely establishes the funding mechanism; the cash still must be appropriated, and Byrd is the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Koon said.
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