Clinton needs to squeeze new majority for E911 bucks
A couple of weeks ago, I suggested in this space that Sen. Hillary Clinton’s ability to lead the country as its president would need to be questioned if the current state of funding for public-safety answering point, or PSAP, upgrades still exists a year from now. As happens every week, I heard from readers, including one who thought my position particularly unfair, in large measure because the opposition party had been in control of both Congress and the White House for the past six years, effectively tying Clinton’s hands.
I agree. Which is exactly why I pointed out that fact in the column. However, the commentary piqued my curiosity, so I checked with someone who knows the inner workings of Capitol Hill much better than I — Patrick Halley, government affairs director for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). I asked Halley what he thought of Clinton’s efforts in the three years since Congress enacted the Enhance 911 Act — legislation that Clinton co-sponsored — that authorized up to $1.25 billion over a five-year period for PSAP upgrades. So far, virtually none of the money has been appropriated.
Halley told me that Clinton and her staff “went out of their way” in the last Congress to work with appropriators to find at least some of the money that had been promised. Fair enough. Though it’s in Halley’s — and NENA’s — best interests to stay on the senator’s good side, I’m more than willing to take him at his word, because he’s always shot straight with me and MRT senior writer Donny Jackson.
But that doesn’t change the fact a new and entirely different game has begun in Washington, and Clinton needs to step up to the plate. She is a high-profile member of the political party that just wrested control of Capitol Hill and is co-chair of the Congressional E911 Caucus, whose sole mission is to further technological advancements in the nation’s emergency call centers. This puts the senator in unique position to exact change — and, fair or not, to shoulder the blame if the money doesn’t begin to flow this year. Yes, there are other Caucus co-chairs — Reps. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), but neither have Clinton’s profile nor are they looking to trade their offices in the Capitol for the Oval Office. If the bucks don’t start to flow, the buck will have to stop at Clinton’s desk.
There is a great deal at stake. Lives have been lost because PSAPs were not capable of locating wireless 911 callers. Without meaningful federal-grant money, not many call centers will be upgraded to comply with the FCC’s Phase 2 mandate, which requires PSAPs to provide location information for 911 calls originating from wireless handsets. Currently, about half of the nation’s PSAPs — mostly in rural areas — are unable to provide Phase 2-level service, according to NENA.
And let’s not forget that the Enhance 911 Act prevents states that divert wireless E911 surcharge money to other purposes from receiving federal E911 grants, which means nothing if there’s no grant money to be had. As Halley told me recently, “If there are no funds available at the federal level, it’s a toothless clause.” Clinton’s adopted home state of New York — where about 25% of PSAPs still are not Phase 2 ready, according to Halley — once was the poster child for wireless 911 surcharge diversions, using funds on at least one occasion to pay for state police uniforms. “We’re not seeing the gross abuses of the past, but they’re still diverting funds,” Halley said.
Sen. Clinton wants to lead the country as its president. A good place to start would be to lead her colleagues on Capitol Hill to fulfill the promises made three years ago. Halley has told me several times that NENA doesn’t expect to get all of the money Congress authorized for PSAP improvements. But don’t you think they had a right to expect something more than zero?
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