The current state of 911: Good, bad and ugly
Of course, the type of training and certification that Brown and Rauter envision would cost considerable money—which brings us to the biggest challenge, by far, facing the 911 sector today: funding.
The idea of migrating to NG-911 is unthinkable for many PSAPs today, because they are struggling just to keep legacy operations going.
“Everywhere you look, there’s a funding challenge,” said Wanda McCarley, an APCO past president who is director of operations for Tarrant County (Texas) 911. “Every month, we find new things we have to look at, new things we have to plan for. … We see cause for concern as we look toward the future. We just finished our planning for the next budget year, and we see revenues going down in some areas, but needs are going up.
“At this point, [funding is] not critical for us. But we see ‘critical’ looming out there in the future, if we’re not careful how we manage our business.”
One of the big problems is that legacy regulations and statutes in many states tie 911 funding solely to wireline communications. NENA’s Fontes described the situation as “alarming.”
“In today’s world, roughly 36% of U.S. households have cut the telephone cord, so to speak,” Fontes said. “Much of the 911 funding across the states has been based, in large part, on tariffs assigned to landline phone service. So, when those tariffs are cut, you’re reducing the 911 fees.”
Fontes suggested that the time has come to consider a funding model that isn’t dependent on fees collected from telecommunications consumers.
Arizona is one of the few states that have funding parity, collecting fees from wireline, wireless, pre-paid wireless and VoIP users. But only 20 cents is collected from each, which is nowhere near enough, according to Barbara Jaeger, NENA president and Arizona’s 911 administrator.
“It’s not enough to maintain our current network, much less start to build a future network,” Jaeger said, noting that 911 “always is at the back end of funding.”
When money is in such short supply, “you have to prioritize; you have to be creative; you have to learn how to do more with less,” Jaeger said.
McCarley echoed that sentiment.
“These are tough times in 911 … and you just have to deal with the hand you’re dealt,” she said.
But a better way of funding 911 service needs to be found at some point,
“That’s going to require some really tough decisions that will determine the future,” she said.
Fontes pointed out the ironic condition in which the sector finds itself today: everyone expects the service to be there when they need it—“It’s almost like a right,” he said—but funding 911 doesn’t seem to be a high priority.
“Something this valuable—you have to figure out a way to make it work financially,” Fontes said.
Jones of Mission Critical Partners thinks he understands why the 911 sector generally is at the end of the funding line.
“Police, fire and EMS are visible, while 911 is not,” Jones said. “And when it comes time to make funding decisions, the ones who are visible are the ones who get the attention.”
Regardless of the reasons, Brown finds the situation frustrating.
“We can talk about anything today, and the question always is the same: ‘Where is the funding coming from?’” he said. “And I don’t have the answer.”
Nor does Flaherty of the National 911 Program—but one might be forthcoming, as a blue-ribbon committee has been formed to study the funding issues that plague the sector. In addition to 911 experts, the committee includes several members with financial or economic backgrounds.
“We really tried to bring in more than the usual suspects,” Flaherty said.
The committee conducted its first meeting in March, and its final report is due to be delivered in March 2014, though Flaherty is optimistic that the committee will finish its work by the end of the year.
However, Flaherty cautioned that change will not be quick or easy to accomplish.
“It’s political, as well as financial, in terms of changing these laws,” she said. “It’s very complicated.”