Public safety seeks money for 911 upgrades
ORLANDO—Technical, operational and logistical challenges faced by public safety answering points (PSAPs) wanting to evolve to a next-generation 911 system can resolved, but funding the massive buildout continues to be a problem, speakers at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) Winter Summit said this week.
Next-generation PSAPs will be based on IP technologies and will enable users to employ a variety of media—voice, text, photos and video—to communicate an emergency situation to a dispatch center. Specifications of what will constitute a next-generation PSAP are not expected to be finished until the second quarter of this year, but that’s not the delay that concerns APCO President Wanda McCarley.
When asked about the major roadblocks facing PSAPs from realizing the promise of a next-generation architecture, McCarley said, “Funding, funding and funding—and then technical [issues].”
Indeed, securing funding has been a problem for many PSAPs, half of which are not equipped to locate wireless 911 callers and some of which still do not have basic wireline 911 service. The Enhance 911 Act of 2004 authorized $1.25 billion in federal grant money for Phase II wireless upgrades, but none of the money has been appropriated to date.
“Our biggest impediment is incompetence,” said Greg Rohde, executive director for the E911 Institute. “The 109th Congress will probably go down as the most incompetent Congress ever. We didn’t have a vote in the U.S. Senate on most of the appropriations bills last year … and Congress only passed two appropriations bills last year.
“We don’t have any funding at all for the one federal grant program that’s supposed to help PSAPs upgrade. That’s something that needs to get addressed, and I think it will be [by the new Democrat-controlled Congress].”
But having enough funding is not the only challenge facing the 911 systems. Rohde noted that ensuring the security of 911 information may be as important as funding, and interoperability remains a critical concern.
Steve Marzolf, ISP manager for the Virginia Information Technologies Agency, said he believes there is enough money available to upgrade 911 systems via public-private partnerships if the proper model can be found. Virginia has such an information-technology agreement with Northrup Grumman, and the state is considering the possibility of pursuing a similar deal in the 911 arena.
“We have not convinced the next-gen partners that they can make money doing this,” he said. “Because, if they can’t make money doing this, it’s not going to happen—they’re not a charity.”
When funding is available, 911 agencies must plan well to ensure that the money is spent wisely—something that has not always happened in the past with Department of Homeland Security grants, Marzolf said.
“We buy a lot of boxes that look really cool and have a lot of blinking lights, but we have to operationalize them,” he said. “I’m hopeful that we’ll get money, but we better be ready to spend it appropriately … Otherwise, I fear it will be another windfall of funding that becomes money in search of a problem rather than a problem in search of money. We have to be diligent and make sure that doesn’t happen.”