Hearing Focuses on 9-1-1 Fee Diversion, National Nonemergency Short Code
Thursday, September 27, 2018 | Comments

Lawmakers reiterated support for pushing next-generation 9-1-1 (NG 9-1-1) forward and finding funding for 9-1-1 during a House hearing on three bills related to 9-1-1.

The three bills discussed at the hearing held by the House subcommittee on communications and technology were:
• The 9-1-1 Fee Integrity Act, which would direct the FCC to issue rules that would designate what 9-1-1 fees collected by state, local and tribal governments can and cannot be used for;
• The National Non-Emergency Mobile Number Act, which would direct the FCC to start a proceeding to designate a nationwide short dialing code for mobile devices to reach public-safety personnel in critical, but nonemergency, situations; and
• The Anti-Swatting Act of 2018, which would strengthen the criminal penalties for those who swat — the act of using misleading caller ID information to trigger an emergency response when there is no threat to life, health or property.

Leonard Lance, a cosponsor on the 9-1-1 fee bill, said that his state, New Jersey, is one of several states that diverts collected 9-1-1 fees to uses other than 9-1-1. He said that state lawmakers are considering implementing a new tax to help fund the NG 9-1-1 transition in the state and questioned why the state would tax its citizens twice when it already has a source of 9-1-1 funding.

In 2016, six states — New Jersey, West Virginia, Illinois, New Mexico, Rhode Island and New York — diverted 9-1-1 fees to purposes other than 9-1-1, according to the FCC’s 2018 report to Congress.

The 9-1-1 fee bill would prevent states from diverting funds to uses outside of 9-1-1, Lance said.

Greg Walden, chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, said the bill is important because public-safety answering points (PSAPs) in some states are not receiving the funds they are promised.

“I would guess that that would be considered fraud for most people besides the government,” Walden said.

James Curry, the head of the communications department for Hunterdon County (New Jersey) Department of Public-Safety, noted that the New Jersey Association of Counties and New Jersey Wireless Association reported that the state collects around $120 million in 9-1-1 fees annually. Since 2006, only 11 percent of that money, which totaled $1.3 billion, has been spent on eligible 9-1-1 expenses, and none of it has been spent on 9-1-1 at the local level.

Curry said his county upgraded its 9-1-1 system because its old system was no longer supported. That project cost $600,000 and was paid for with local taxpayer funds.

“Those taxpayers may have thought they subsidized it when they paid their phone bill, but actually, they paid it twice,” Curry said.

Eddie Reyes, director of the Prince William County (Virginia) Office of Public Safety Communications, said that most PSAPs face challenges with funding such as staffing shortages, outdated technology and poor training.

“Every cent diverted from 9-1-1 could be used to enhance these major vulnerabilities that are ever so present in almost every center,” he said.

Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania asked the public-safety officials if they had concerns about whether the current local, state and federal funding structures are enough to support a robust NG 9-1-1 system across the country.

Reyes said that most of the PSAPs in Virginia don’t have the budget for NG 9-1-1. He said that the 9-1-1 community likely needs some legislation to help with national NG 9-1-1 implementation similar to the bill that created the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) and set aside funds to start that effort.

Curry and Paul Starks, director of the Public Information Office for the Montgomery (Maryland) Police Department, agreed. In New Jersey, with most 9-1-1 fees being diverted, there is not enough funding, Curry said.

“I will reiterate to my colleagues that if we want to get this done, we’ll need more resources,” Doyle said.

Curry said that all of the 9-1-1 funding comes from local taxes and said he never expects to receive 9-1-1 fee funds from the state when he budgets each year.

Rep. John Shimkus from Illinois noted that his state had done well with 9-1-1 fees when he first took office but had begun to divert more over the years. He also expressed concern that states might “game” the system by reporting to the FCC that they’re not diverting 9-1-1 fees and then diverting fees after making that report.

“When you collect money for a purpose and then don’t use it for that purpose, most average Americans wouldn’t be able to get away with what governments get away with,” said Shimkus.

Nonemergency Short Code
In regard to the national short code bill, the three public-safety representatives expressed support for a national number, but Reyes also expressed concern that the bill could increase the workload of PSAPs and potentially overwhelm staff with the number of nonemergency calls.

The bill would create a federal uniform short code number that people can use to reach government services in critical but nonemergency situations, such as a tree down in the street.

Curry said that he didn’t think the bill would change call volumes for his center because all of those calls would be coming to his center regardless of if they were made to the emergency or nonemergency number.

All three said their counties have 10-digit nonemergency numbers that people can call for nonemergency situations. However, it’s hard to get people to remember that number, they said.

Most people will call 9-1-1, even in nonemergency systems, because its an easy number to remember, and they know it’s a number that will always be answered, Reyes said.

Several states already have short code numbers for nonemergency calls, but those short codes are not uniform across the states. Several subcommittee members expressed concern that the lack of uniformity makes it difficult for travelers to know which number to call to reach government services in nonemergency situations.

Starks said that education and outreach around the national short code would be important so people know it is available and know the number. Educating the public about the number would likely be easier than when 9-1-1 was introduced in 1968 because of newer tools such as the internet and social media, he said.

All three public-safety officials also expressed support for the anti-swatting bill, saying that it would help them better fight swatting and ensure that emergency resources are not wasted by being called to fake emergencies.

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