A blast from the past
Last month, Dr. Bill Munn, who spent more than two decades as the executive director of the Tarrant County 911 District headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, before retiring in January, began his second term as president of the National Emergency Number Association. Much has changed since Munn’s first term in 1997.
In fact, it could be argued that today represents, almost paradoxically, the most exciting and challenging time in public-safety answering point, or PSAP, history, with the advent of next-generation 911, the nationwide funding crisis and the need to cope with the burgeoning number of voice-over-IP subscribers. MRT caught up with Dr. Munn for an exclusive interview during NENA’s annual conference in Pittsburgh last month.
What has changed since the last time you were NENA president?
We had no clout in Washington, nor did we have a voice. We also didn’t have more than 2000-3000 members. Now we have a strong voice in Washington, and it’s not just because our membership now is at about 7000. It also has to do with [Government Affairs Director] Patrick Halley, and his knowledge and ability to walk into a key Congressional member’s office and have an audience with at least key staff. He has earned the trust of key personnel in the House and Senate. It’s the difference between night and day comparing now to where we were six or seven years ago.
Also, back in the mid-‘90s, 911 was still a relatively new phenomenon. Sometimes I parallel its development to that of emergency medical services. Unfortunately, I’m old enough to remember when mortuaries provided ambulance service—there was no such thing as EMS. Then, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a report that said a soldier wounded in combat had a better chance of surviving than an American citizen injured on a rural highway, because the soldier had rapid evacuation. That laid the foundation for EMS. Over the years, EMS developed into a profession, with standards and best practices. Through all of this, it became clear that time was the most important factor in saving lives, and that eventually led to the creation of the emergency number system, which also has grown into a profession. Since 1997, NENA has certified about 800 ENPs [emergency number professionals] nationwide.
What do you want to see NENA accomplish during your current term?
We still have as a primary goal the funding and establishment of a National 911 Coordination office, which would serve as a clearinghouse for legislative and regulatory issues. That’s important. Also, the reason we don’t have wall-to-wall 911 coverage in the U.S.—and the reason we don’t have Phase 2 coverage nationwide—is simply that some places can’t afford it. The more sparsely populated areas haven’t been able to afford the kind of fee structure needed to pay for 911, so there are areas where federal help is needed.
Has the time come for a radical revamping of the funding mechanism?
With the traditional landline revenue falling and a wide variety of approaches to wireless funding across the country, it may well be approaching. But I don’t think the time has arrived just yet, because there are some well-funded districts that are going to say, ‘We don’t want federal money, we don’t want outside control or state administration, we’re doing just fine.” And many are. Right now, we don’t know what the ultimate costs of next-gen 911 are going to be over the next five to seven years, or what the impact of those costs is going to be on traditional revenues. There may well be an evolution of the funding system that we can’t recognize right now.
But hasn’t the time come to abandon such parochial thinking and for NENA to lead members in a direction that benefits all PSAPs, regardless of size or location?
It’s certainly NENA’s responsibility to know the funding alternatives. … When we implemented E-911 in the state of Texas, we had an equalization surcharge that was collected in every county. In actuality, the larger counties were paying this surcharge for the sole purpose of providing 911 in the rural counties, where they might have only 400 or 600 people. So, the concept certainly isn’t new. As we move to next-generation 911, if that’s the way it has to go, then it would be NENA’s responsibility to define the best options and at least present them. But we’re not going to be able to tell [PSAP officials] to give us their surcharges and that we’re going to do away with local administration because we’re going to do it on a state level. We’d be burned at the stake.