THIS FRIDAY marks the 50th anniversary of the first 911 emergency call placed in the United States. Since then, uncounted lives have been saved and people helped. It has been a great accomplishment of government.
But even as an estimated 240 million 911 calls continue to be placed annually, the systems that service them have grown obsolete, unable to handle photos, video, downloads, precise geo-locating and even, in most places, simple text messages. That’s a threat not just to public safety but also to national security.
Worryingly, no one seems quite sure how to pay for a modernization to what’s known as Next Generation 911 (“NG911” in industry parlance), whose cost could exceed $20 billion. This week, as hundreds of public-safety and industry officials gather in the District for their annual 911 conference, many will have one main question on their minds: Why not prioritize an upgrade as part of the Trump administration’s national infrastructure project?
Good question. Given the dearth of funding in the president’s proposal, however, there’s little room for optimism in the short term. And in the White House’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, a 55-page document released Monday, there’s not a word about upgrading 911 service.
Part of the problem is that 911 is a victim of its own success. For much of the service’s history, people who called the emergency number, which was handled by the single local phone company, could be all but certain the system would work. Calls were answered promptly and handled efficiently, and help would be quickly on the way.
That’s still the case for the vast majority of 911 calls, but glitches have multiplied as technology has aged and Americans have switched to cellphones, from which 80 percent of 911 calls are now made. A six-hour outage in April 2014 left 750,000 wireless customers in California without access to 911. In October 2016, a cyberattack via Twitter triggered nonstop cellphone emergency calls in cities nationwide, flooding 911 call centers. One day last March, AT&T Wireless customers nationwide couldn’t get through to 911.
“Every call to 911 must go through,” said Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Yes, but that’s not happening. In Maryland, state Sen. Cheryl Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat alarmed at the deaths of constituents in her district involving 911 breakdowns since 2006, has introduced legislation to help localities start the transition to NG911. As things stand, callers can send text messages to 911 in just one county — Frederick County, home of the Maryland School for the Deaf.
As the system ages, it will become ever more prone to pranks, hackers and cyberattacks, and ever less reliable. It will also be increasingly vulnerable to collapse in emergencies, unable to reroute calls in the event of natural disasters and terrorist attacks.
At the heart of NG911 is a shift to Internet, digital-based routing to replace old-fashioned phone lines. That will take a large helping of funds from Congress, plus significant contributions from state and local governments. So far, there’s little sign of either.
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