Funding for 911 should reflect today’s technological realities
Yesterday, I wrote a column about the fact that residents of Taney County, Mo., soon will vote on a proposed sales-tax hike that is designed to address a financial shortfall in the local 911 system. While I believe that getting rid of 911 should not be an option, the fact that the county is in this predicament is just another symptom of a bigger problem: 911 funding models need to be updated nationwide.
A big factor in Taney County’s situation is that Missouri doesn’t impose a statewide 911 fee on wireless subscribers. According to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), Wisconsin is the only other state without such a fee. That’s a big problem, because roughly half of all 911 calls originate from wireless phones.
But even in states that have such fees, the level of funding varies wildly from state to state, which creates all sorts of inequities regarding 911 resources.
Another big problem is that 38% of American homes today are wireless-only, according to NENA CEO Brian Fontes, who described the funding woes that are afflicting the 911 sector as a “very critical issue.”
“When we were 90% wireline households, with the tariffs that were imposed on the landline industries for 911 service, there was a revenue stream coming in,” Fontes said. “Now that 38% of those households are wireless-only, that revenue stream has taken a huge hit.”
Fontes agreed with me that the time has come for Congress to do something about this. I’d like to see federal legislation that funds 911 on a nationwide basis, and takes it out of the hands of state and local governments. So would Fontes. But that could take some time. A near-term solution that would be comparatively easy to execute would be for Congress to redefine public safety as including the 911 sector.
“It’s something that Congress could do immediately,” Fontes said.
He added that 911 never has been included in the definition of public safety at the federal level.
“So, when Congress bestows money on [Homeland Security] or the Justice Department, and says to them, ‘You can spend this money on public safety,’ 911 isn’t part of that. So, perhaps it’s time to change the definition of what public safety means at the federal level to include 911.”
If that happened, the 911 sector would be eligible to receive grants from federal agencies, Fontes said. He added that changing the definition would be as simple as adding the words “including 911” to any public-safety appropriations bill.
It seems crazy that the 911 sector wouldn’t be included in the definition of public safety—where do federal lawmakers think emergency response begins? It seems even crazier that federal grant money would be made available to police, fire and EMS but not to 911. But that’s the way it’s always been, according to Fontes.
“Historically, the federal government has not funded 911 at all, with the exception of $43 million in grants to study what they were going to need to move to next-generation 911,” he said.
I remember that. Congress authorized $1.25 billion in funding for public-safety answering point (PSAP) improvements when it enacted the Enhance 911 Act of 2004. Other than the money referenced by Fontes, none of the funding ever was appropriated.
The National 911 Program Office convened a blue-ribbon committee to study the 911 sector’s funding problems, and its report is expected to be published by the end of the year. I hope they can make sense of this. Someone needs to.