For more than a decade, there has been a push to upgrade the country’s 911 call centers from analog- to digital-based systems, which would allow callers to send and receive text messages, videos, geolocations, and other data to and from emergency dispatchers.
Progress on that push has been slow, but could receive a major boost under the latest version of the House infrastructure measure. The $1.75 trillion Build Back Better reconciliation legislation, released on Oct. 28, would include roughly $500 million in funding to digitalize emergency call systems—transforming them into what’s referred to as “Next Generation 911.”
At a Nov. 2 House Homeland Security Committee hearing on emergency communications, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Assistant Director Billy Bob Brown Jr. touted the benefits of Next Generation 911—including “the ability to respond to 911 requests faster and with greater accuracy, greater situational awareness, greater resilience, and with more consistent quality.”
“Furthermore, interconnectivity and interoperability among 911 systems positions the nation to obtain better awareness of community needs, identify trends, and evaluate how effectively U.S. residents and visitors are served,” Brown said.
Next Generation 911 technology has been around for more than a decade and has been adopted in some areas of the country. The city of Alexandria, Virginia, is launching a cloud-based 911 system this week that city officials say can locate callers with pinpoint accuracy.
But in most areas of the country, emergency dispatchers still operate on traditional analog phone systems.
Citing statistics from CISA, Brown told committee members on Nov. 2 that about 75 percent of local public safety organizations lack the funding for capital investment in emergency communications network systems. While areas such as the National Capital Region have received hundreds of millions of dollars for upgrades since 9/11, rural communities have continued to fund their systems locally.
A 2018 study by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) estimated that it would cost between $9.5 billion and $12.7 billion to implement Next Generation 911 nationwide.
Industry and public safety officials have made a concerted effort to secure this funding in the Build Back Better Act.
The Public Safety Next Generation 911 Coalition—a consortium of police and fire departments across the nation—lobbied for a one-time $15 billion federal investment throughout 2021. In September, House Commerce Committee members approved a version of the Build Back Better Act that would have included $10 billion in funding for Next Generation 911.
However, the latest version released last week cut that funding to just under $500 million, including $470 million in grants for local jurisdictions to implement the technology, as well as $9 million to establish a Next Generation 911 Cybersecurity Center.
The $9 million for a dedicated cybersecurity center could be particularly important to a nationwide system’s success, given the security risks posed by Next Generation 911, according to Brown.
“One of the challenges we’ve been working with our 911 partners across the nation is the idea that we understand, that the provision of text, videos, or images to call centers provides the opportunity for the introduction of malware,” he said. “If malware is introduced from the beginning in a video, in an image, in a text to a 911 center, it has the possibility of providing that malware to the interconnected government systems.”
Despite the cutback, industry stakeholders noted that the nearly $500 million would be the largest ever federal allocation for emergency call centers.
“While some will focus on the significant drop in funding, I know the kind of people working in the 911 community,” industry consultant John Chiaramonte said in a statement released by the Industry Council for Emergency Response Technologies. “You will not find a more resourceful, ‘MacGyver’ group of people than these first, first responders.
“I’m optimistic that the funding will all work out and we will soon see a future with a nationwide Next Generation 911 system, able to improve and enhance emergency response outcomes.”