Modernizing the 911 system

Posted on February 20, 2018 14:59 pm CST

By Congressman Billy Long,

In 1957, frustrated by the lack of a single emergency telephone number, emergency responders came together in hopes of establishing a single emergency number. A little over 10 years later, the first 911 call was made in Haleyville, Alabama. February 16, 1968, marked a new age in public safety and saved countless lives. However, it wasn’t until 1999 when the 911 emergency number was officially signed into law, thanks to the Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act.

Congress recently passed two bills that help advance 9-1-1 services nationwide, H.R. 582, the Kari’s Law Act, and S. 96, the Improving Rural Call Quality and Reliability Act. Kari’s Law ensures anyone who dials 911 would reach emergency personnel even if the phone typically requires that user to dial “9” to get an outside line. Many phones in hotels, offices and even schools don’t reach emergency personnel when a user dials 911 because the person failed to dial “9” first. The Improving Rural Call Quality and Reliability Act would require the Federal Communications Commission to set call completion standards to avoid calls in rural areas from being dropped or rerouted incorrectly.

Though more and more people have access to this service, issues still remain. Natural disasters, such as the 2011 Joplin tornado, is a perfect example of this. Recently, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai visited an emergency call center in Joplin, and during that visit, staff at the call center made clear that communications was the biggest issue following the EF5 tornado. First responders in Joplin, Jasper County and Newton County all use different communication systems, making it nearly impossible to share information and calls during an emergency. One way to solve this is by making sure all three places have the same system; however, due to lack of funding, that has been a challenge.

As we work toward decreasing issues with the current 911 system, we must also continue to modernize to keep up with the changing forms of communication. Currently, 20 states have adopted what is referred to as the Next Generation 911 (NG911). This new system not only makes calls more efficient, it also allows people to send voice messages, photos, videos and text messages to the 911 system. Individuals can do this from any wired, wireless or internet protocol-based device. Though cost is an issue, several pieces of legislation over the years have made it easier for states to adopt NG911 by allowing them to apply for grants that help pay for new systems as well as training.

This is an issue that has been a priority on both sides of the political aisle. Both S. 96 and H.R. 582 were passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. As discussions to improve our 911 systems continue, I look forward to working with my colleagues to hit these challenges head-on. Lives depend on it.

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