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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Emergency Communications: The Future of 911

Linda K. Moore
Specialist in Telecommunications Policy

Today's 911 system is built on an infrastructure of analog technology that does not support many of the features that most Americans expect to be part of an emergency response. Efforts to splice newer, digital technologies onto this aging infrastructure have created points of failure where a call can be dropped or misdirected, sometimes with tragic consequences. Callers to 911, however, generally assume that the newer technologies they are using to place a call are matched by the same level of technology at the 911 call centers, known as Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs). This is not the case. Modernizing the system to provide the quality of service that approaches the expectations of its users will require investments in new technologies. The general consensus is that these new technologies, collectively referred to as Next Generation 911 or NG9- 1-1, should incorporate Internet Protocol (IP) standards. An IP-enabled emergency communications network that supports 911 will facilitate interoperability and system resilience; improve connections between 911 call centers; provide more robust capacity; and offer flexibility in receiving and managing calls. 

Recognizing the importance of providing effective 911 service, Congress has passed three major bills supporting improvements in the handling of 911 emergency calls. The most recent of these—the NET 911 Improvement Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-283)—required the preparation of a National Plan for migrating to an IP-enabled emergency network. Responsibility for the plan was assigned to the E-911 Implementation Coordination Office (ICO), created to meet requirements of an earlier law, the ENHANCE 911 Act of 2004 (P.L. 108-494). ICO is co-administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). In recent years, DOT has taken a leadership role in developing NG9-1-1 programs. 

Even though authorization for ICO terminated on September 30, 2009, the National Plan was not completed until September 25, 2009, leaving no time for ICO to act on issues raised by the plan. If ICO and DOT programs are not renewed or replaced, the only federal agency with a continuing role in implementing national policies to improve 911 systems and services will be the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). 

Legislation has been introduced that would create an "improved" ICO to focus on advancing the fundamental policy goal of creating an IP-enabled emergency communications network (H.R. 4829, Representative Eshoo). The recreated ICO would be established for five years under the direction of the NTIA, not jointly administered with a DOT agency. ICO would oversee a grant program that would be authorized for $250 million a year over five years. States that redirected fees collected for 911 to other uses would not be eligible for grants; a similar provision was part of the grant program created by the ENHANCE 911 Act of 2004. 

Other types of citizen-activated emergency calls are handled in call centers. Increasingly many calls for assistance are placed by dialing 211. The number has been provisionally designated for community information and referrals. Service levels and response times for 211 calls would benefit from a transition to IP-enabled networks and in many cases could share infrastructure with 911 networks. Legislation introduced in the 111th Congress includes two bills covering 211 call centers: S. 211 (Senator Clinton) and H.R. 211 (Representative Eshoo).

Date of Report: March 16, 2010
Number of Pages: 35
Order Number: RL34755
Price: $29.95

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