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The Future of 9-1-1

A recent story in the NENA Public Safety SmartBrief caught my eye. Titled, “County’s plan for 911 center will help city, official says,” I clicked on the link wondering why that was such a big issue. After reading it through, I realized we do have a huge problem. This story wasn’t about the city and the county being at odds. That’s not really anything new or newsworthy. The underlying problem was the real news-is how 9-1-1 funded currently adequate moving into the future? In this story, Tulsa County (OK) Sheriff Stanley Glanz said the county’s ability to have a property-based funding source for their 911 system would be a benefit to both the city and the citizens. The question of funding shortages was alive and well in this discussion. A Blue Ribbon Panel on 9-1-1 Funding established by the FCC’s Communications Security, Reliability, and Interoperability Council (CSRIC) says the answer to whether the current funding state of 911 is adequate is no and in a lengthy report to the National 911 Program they explain why.

Main Issue

The current 911 system was based on the operation of analog, circuit-switched network technology. This technology was basically funded by fees attached to an individual’s landline telephone service. Now not only are a large amount of people abandoning a landline home phone for wireless cellular, 9-1-1 technology is in a major evolution having moved from legacy 9-1-1 to E9-1-1 to NG9-1-1. In a preliminary report titled, “Current State of 911 Funding and Oversight”, the Blue Ribbon Panel stated, “Stakeholders agree that current 911 funding is unstable and inadequate to support the migration to NG911. States are seeing a decline in 911 revenues due to a move away from landlines and the adoption of new technologies such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) or prepaid cellular telephones. For many states, newer technologies are not incorporated within enabling legislation that allow for 911 surcharges.” Of course, like many things in public safety this is not preventing political parties, as well as, citizens from insisting on the changes occurring.

Funding for 9-1-1 varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction with much of the funding being regulated by legislation. Most use methods such as surcharges on landlines, new or portions of existing taxes, state and federal grants, and others. The Panel outlined a number of these methods including current funding issues, as well as, future NG911 funding challenges. Here are three examples:

Funding Method: Surcharge on Wireline (landline) Telephone Subscribers

Today’s funding issues

  • The number of wireline subscribers continues to decline
  • Funds are insufficient in most cases to fund necessary system improvements

 

Future NG911 Funding Challenges

  • Subscribership is predicted to continue to erode
  • Funds will continue to be insufficient for current operations, investment required to implement NG911 and the system transition period

 

Funding Method:    Prepaid Cellular Point of Sale (POS) Charge

Today’s Funding Issues

  • Disparate collection mechanisms are used
  • Few states have legislative requirements in place
  • Services have resisted collecting the 911 fee from their customers on the basis that the law, as written, does not apply to them

 

Future NG911 Funding Challenges

  • No monthly billing/contract exists as a mechanism for collections
  • Eighty percent of prepaid services are sold by third parties who do not have a relationship with the customer. The number of POS transactions continues to increase
  • Retail POS legislation is needed to ensure collections
  • It is unknown whether funds will be sufficient for NG911

 

Funding Method: General Fund Tax

Today’s Funding Issues

  • In the current economic environment, increases in taxes are politically unpopular
  • Sometimes levy limits prohibit additional taxing for public safety application
  • Taxing mechanism is not consistent with costs

 

Future NG911 Funding Challenges

  • Already stressed mechanism will likely not be able to provide all necessary additional funding needed for NG911

 

Diversion

Although realizing that our current funding is not adequate to continue supporting 9-1-1 is disturbing enough, one of the funding issues that the Panel identified was even more upsetting-911 revenue is being diverted to states’ general funds. Essentially, money that was raised specifically for 911 is being siphoned for other uses, in particular, to balance state budgets. This practice leaves an essential public safety service underfunded to help fix the mistakes in other parts of a budget. I doubt I’m the only one who finds this practice reprehensible and ill-advised. In fact, some federal grant applications have attempted to remedy this by stipulating that a state must certify their funds are being used for their intended purposes. Of course, in this day and age, it appears the states would rather lose the 911 grant funding than curb this practice.

Solutions

The Blue Ribbon Panel discussed and found several possible funding mechanisms that would be able to support the transition to NG911, as well as, continue to fund 911 in the future. The panel admits to have thought way outside the box considering all current and future ideas. The report summarizes, “The Panel’s discussions generated numerous ideas and suggestions to support the transition to NG911 systems by addressing current challenges and improving upon past successes. The Final Report of the Blue Ribbon Panel on 911 Funding project builds on the ideas and recommendations of the Panel and incorporates further research to provide 911 jurisdictions, policymakers, and other stakeholders with a summary of possibilities and considerations that can support 911 into the future.” All the financing methods fell into three categories:

            State and/or Local Public Financing

  • Existing means of current 911 funding (e.g., surcharges on telephone lines)
  • Ideas currently in small trials (e.g., property- or utility-based surcharges, sales tax, etc.)
  • Completely new ideas to the 911 community (e.g., fee for service)

 

Federal Financing

  • Federal grant programs
  • Potential Federal Infrastructure financing opportunities (such as the National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank)

 

Private Financing

  • Public-private partnerships (P3s)
  • Cloud-based hosted or leased solutions
  • Private grant programs

 

The Panel recognized that the large number of PSAPs nationwide (over 6,000) required a variety of solutions stating, “Each 911 operation is unique, suggesting that no single, universal approach to 911 funding and oversight will be successful nationwide.” They furthered by reminding jurisdictions that they “are not limited to a single funding approach.” The issues that the Panel assessed should be a concern to all of us working in the 911 community. This is not a service that can go by the wayside because funding isn’t available. 911 is the first line of public safety and citizens expect it to be available, modern and in-step with the abilities of consumer technology. Due to this, the question of how to upgrade and maintain 911 has to be discussed and new solutions designed to match new problems. It’s wonderful to see that the National 911 Program is continuing to ask the hard questions, is willing to think beyond the way it’s been done in the past and helping to ensure the quality 9-1-1 service that legions of dedicated workers have passed on to us.

 

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