Wheeler Urges Congressional Action on NG 9-1-1, Public Safety to Embrace New Technology
Thursday, August 20, 2015 | Comments

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler urged the public-safety community to embrace technology advances and urged Congress to pass legislation that will accelerate the pace of next-generation 9-1-1 (NG 9-1-1) deployments. Wheeler made his remarks to a packed ballroom Aug. 19 at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International conference in Washington, D.C.

Wheeler detailed several FCC initiatives during the past year that have focused on improving public-safety communications, including passing rules to enhance 9-1-1 continuity earlier this month. Wheeler also highlighted the FCC’s role in bringing text-to-9-1-1 service to the market, and its rules establishing expectations for indoor location accuracy, which he called a floor and not a ceiling.

“To say this is a time of great technological change is to engage in understatement,” said Wheeler. “These technology changes are creating new opportunities to enhance public safety. At the same time, the march of technological progress raises new challenges.”

The move to digital networks is changing the provision of 9-1-1 services, but network outages caused by ‘growing pains’ associated with new technologies is unacceptable. More than $40 million in fines for outages that disrupted 9-1-1 services have been issued in the past four months, he said.

“I cannot imagine a more harrowing experience than desperately needing to call 9-1-1 because a loved one needs medical attention, only to pick up the phone and hear … nothing,” said Wheeler. “We won’t stand for it.”

Wheeler focused many of his remarks on NG 9-1-1 and what he believes should happen next.

“Done right, the move to NG 9-1-1 should dramatically improve emergency response,” said Wheeler. “Some state and local 9-1-1 decision-makers have made important strides to migrate their public-safety answering points (PSAPs) to NG 9-1-1. This is gratifying to see, but I think everyone would agree we are not where we need to be.”

Wheeler said efforts to transition to NG 9-1-1 to date have been too slow and ragged and that there are understandable reasons for the sluggish move to NG 9-1-1, including the need to maintain legacy capabilities during the transition, which is both costly and complex.

“But this isn’t a unique experience; throughout our communications infrastructure, this is being done — and done successfully,” he said. “Just because the slow implementation of NG 9-1-1 is understandable doesn’t make it excusable. Today’s fractured implementation of 9-1-1 and NG 9-1-1 capabilities leaves Americans confused and at greater risk.”

Wheeler said the FCC has formed an expert advisory panel to help tackle the issue. The Task Force on Optimal Public Safety Answering Point Architecture is working to determine how PSAPs can better integrate NG 9-1-1 functionality into their operations. Focuses of the group include NG 9-1-1 architectures, allocation of resources and cybersecurity. A final report and recommendations are expected before the end of the year, Wheeler said.

Wheeler urged Congress to get involved by enacting legislation that will help NG 9-1-1 move forward.

“While Congress has enacted important 9-1-1 legislation over the last 20 years, the legislative framework largely adopted in 1999 has been outstripped by changes in technology, the marketplace and consumer behavior in the 21st century. To effectively implement NG 9-1-1, we need to amend our laws in a way that reflects the changing realities on the ground.”

Specifically, Wheeler urged Congress to authorize establishment of a national maps database to ensure every PSAP has access to current maps that may help overcome issues of 9-1-1 calls being misrouted near PSAP boundaries. Wheeler also addressed the issue of funding and the problem of 9-1-1 fees being raided for non-9-1-1 purposes by local and state governments.

“Congress could direct the FCC to assist states in developing effective audit tools to ensure appropriate collection and expenditure of 9-1-1 funds and prevent diversion of funds to other purposes. Bottom line: Localities need to have access to appropriate resources to ensure that 9-1-1 services meet the needs of their communities, and funding collected for 9-1-1 should only be used for 9-1-1,” said Wheeler to loud applause from the crowd.

Wheeler called for additional federal grants to help pay for capital expenses associated with implementing NG 9-1-1 above and beyond the $115 million Congress authorized as part of the Next Generation 911 Advancement Act of 2012. That funding likely won’t be available until the end of 2016.

“That’s a good start, but more can be done,” said Wheeler. “Congress could authorize matching funds to help PSAPs migrate to efficient NG 9-1-1 ESInets and shared platforms. It could condition existing and future grants on the use of best practice architectures identified by our task force’s recommendations for optimal NG 9-1-1 implementation.”

Finally, Wheeler asked Congress to provide incentives for the development and use of shared security operations centers supporting multiple PSAPs. His comments were echoed in other in cybersecurity discussions during sessions at the show, where several speakers said individual PSAPs will have difficulty facing cyber risks alone and will need to band together, share resources and form public-private partnerships in order to successfully fend off growing cybersecurity threats.

“The simple truth is that PSAPs — particularly smaller PSAPs — are not well resourced to address this fight and in many cases cannot afford to face it alone,” said Wheeler. “We need to think creatively about coordinating our cyber defenses to leverage expertise as broadly as possible so that all our PSAPs have access to tools to protect themselves.”

Wheeler closed his comments by quoting Silicon Valley executive Aaron Levie, who joked that a common attitude toward change among CEOs and government officials is “I’m pro innovation as long as everything stays EXACTLY the same.”

Wheeler said the public-safety community can’t afford to take that attitude.

“Technology is changing our world, and those of us charged with promoting and protecting public safety need to change with it. The disruption will be difficult and the temptation to stick with the status quo will be great. But embracing next-generation technologies will be worth it.”

Wheeler joked that public-safety professionals must be a bold group to travel to hot and humid Washington in August.

“It was only a few years ago that foreign governments quit paying tropical duty bonuses for being stationed in Washington for the summer,” Wheeler quipped to a laughing audience.

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