Improving public safety communications is matter of life and death in emergencies

June 13, 2007

Great progress has been made during the last two years regarding the advancement of public safety’s communication needs. One key legislative initiative was the digital television transition legislation that established a date certain when 24 MHz of prime spectrum will be put into the hands of first responders. The legislation also requires that 60 MHz of prime spectrum be auctioned and directs that a significant portion of the proceeds be used for important public safety needs — including $1 billion for public safety grants to improve communications interoperability. The scheduled spectrum auction will also fund an updated warning and alert system that utilizes mobile phones and other devices to improve 911 calling, and even deliver tsunami warnings.

These important issues remain a top priority during the 110th Congress and recent legislation (S.4) passed by the Senate contains provisions to accelerate the improvement of the nation’s 911 system and provide guidance for the $1 billion in interoperability grants. The bill ensures that interoperability in every state will be improved, but more work remains to be done.

While Congress has made great strides in improving communications for public safety, one area that still needs improvement is the 911 system. Currently 50 percent of the counties in the United States cannot locate 911 calls from mobile phones, and there are accuracy concerns where the location service is available. Some of these problems are related to funding. Congress has taken an important first step in allocating more than $43 million to a grant program to improve the nation’s 911 system. States will need to do their part to ensure that user fees charged to mobile phone consumers for 911 are not diverted into other programs when 911 service is not available statewide.

Both federal and state officials will need to work together to encourage the use of new lifesaving capabilities. Internet Protocol-based technologies will allow vital information to be transmitted via 911. The latest technologies can allow cars to automatically dial 911 when airbags are deployed and tell emergency response officials the speed of the crash and the number of passengers in the car. However, these capabilities will not become a reality if public safety officials cannot upgrade their 911 call answering facilities. The ENHANCE 911 Act of 2004 passed in the 108th Congress, took significant steps to establish a national office to coordinate 911 planning and buildout. This essential law is set to expire on Oct. 1, 2009, and similar to the interoperability context, national direction and funds are needed to continue the 911 system improvements. As Congress examines reauthorizing this critical legislation, it must ensure the latest capabilities and Internet Protocol technologies are included in the 911 system. Additionally, steps should be taken to ensure that when a major event, like a hurricane, earthquake or other disaster disables a 911 calling center, calls can be rerouted to another 911 call center.

I look forward to working with Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), our colleagues on the Senate Commerce Committee and the members of the 911 Caucus to ensure that these critical concerns are addressed. Communications technologies have improved our lives in many ways, and working together, Congress can ensure that they continue to save lives as well.

Stevens is the ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.