Updated Nov 25, 2021 - Technology

Congress decimates 911's digital upgrade

Illustration of an old rotary phone covered in cobwebs

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Public safety officials fear the nation's 911 centers will continue to languish in the analog era, after Democrats slashed proposed funding for a digital makeover in their social spending bill.

Why it matters: The potentially life-saving ability for people to send texts, pictures or videos to 911 centers, and for centers to seamlessly share data with each other, remains out of reach for many of the country’s 6,000 centers.

What's happening: The House Energy & Commerce Committee advanced a proposal that would have spent $10 billion on next-generation 911 centers in September, but that funding was reduced to $470 million for deployment in the final House version of the Build Back Better Act.

  • A cost report to Congress on next-generation 911 from 2018 estimated it would take about $12 billion to implement the networks nationwide, though advocates say $15 billion might be needed.
  • "To say I'm disappointed is to put it mildly," Brian Fontes, CEO of NENA: The 911 Association, told Axios. "It's extraordinarily unfortunate."

How it works: Next-generation 911 would allow centers to accept multimedia from those in need and let centers share data among themselves easily to ensure the best response.

  • For example, a smartwatch wearer having a heart attack could send a 911 alert, said Capt. Mel Maier of the Oakland County, Michigan, Sheriff's Office, who chairs the Public Safety Next Generation 911 Coalition.
  • “We’ve had people in the closet because they’re hiding from a domestic violence” incident text 911, Maier said. And because it’s not a community his 911 center serves, he said he’s had to relay caller information by phone to another emergency response center due to incompatible texting programs.
  • Roughly 3,000 911 centers can receive text messages, according to an FCC report.

The intrigue: The proposed $10 billion in Build Back Better funding was cut as part of the negotiations with the Senate to bring down the total, sources told Axios.

  • "I know there are tons of voices looking for money, but this is about the safety and security of the general public," Jeff Cohen, chief counsel and director of government relations for pubic safety association APCO International, told Axios. "The fact that they cannot send multimedia content to 911 is outrageous."

What they're saying: House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) told Axios in a statement he fought for funding levels closer to the $10 billion during the negotiations, and will continue to seek additional funding.

  • "The investments Build Back Better makes in Next Gen 9-1-1 should be celebrated as a crucial first step — but a first step only," Pallone said.

Between the lines: Funding next-generation 911 and public safety is a bipartisan issue that ended up in a partisan spending bill.

  • Congress previously authorized $115 million for improvements in 2012, but not enough for a full transition.

What's next: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said senators would act as "quickly as possible" to take up the Build Back Better legislation after House passage.

  • Public safety advocates are pressing the Senate to increase the funding, but acknowledge the prospects are bleak.
  • If approved as is, the $470 million could be used for pilot programs or for some states to upgrade existing capacities. But that will lead to unequal levels of service.
  • "We will be a nation of haves and have nots if we don't get this funded, and that's the last thing I'd want to have, particularly when it comes to one's own need for 911," Fontes told Axios.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to note that the response center to which Maier relayed information can accept texts, but has their own proprietary texting program incompatible with his — not that it can't accept texts.

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