Will Improved Transparency Facilitate Text-to-911 in California?

Gov. Jerry Brown has signed Senate Bill 1211, which requires the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services to develop a timeline for a statewide next-generation 911 emergency communications system.

by / October 3, 2014
Ryan Whisenhunt

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation on Tuesday, Sept. 30, to kick-start adoption of next-generation emergency communications technology in the state. But while the law requires state leaders to develop a comprehensive rollout plan, questions remain on how to adequately fund the upgrades.

Senate Bill 1211 orders the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) to establish a transparent process for calculating how much next-gen 911 technology will cost to implement on an annual basis, including how it sets the statewide 911 customer fee on phone bills. But according to one expert, questions have surfaced across the U.S. about whether states are using their 911 funds appropriately.

In an interview with Government Technology, Kim Robert Scovill, executive director of the NG9-1-1 Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes the deployment of next-generation 911 services, explained that some states move 911 money over to their general fund for other purposes. And while that doesn’t indicate a state is ignoring public-safety, he said increased fiscal transparency was a good move to ensure the money is being used properly.

“Apparently the [California] Legislature felt that there was some lack of transparency and maybe some lack of appropriate allocation of those funds, and so they felt the need for additional legislation,” Scovill said. “That’s what it sounds like on the surface.”

Sponsored by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, SB 1211 goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2015. The OES is required to post next-gen 911 implementation costs on its website no later than Sept. 1 of each year.

In a September letter to Brown urging him to sign the measure, Padilla said that the transparent process for adjusting the customer fee that funds the 911 system will enhance accountability and public trust in anticipation of “substantial fee increases necessary for text to 911 and other Next-Gen 911 services.”

Technical Challenges

Wireless providers are preparing for next-generation emergency communications and should be ready at the end of the year to support text-911 functionality. But many public-safety answering points (PSAPs) continue to operate outdated equipment that is unable to handle next-generation capabilities.

Padilla also noted in his letter to Brown that none of California’s 500 dispatch offices are ready to accept text messages to 911. In addition, the senator admitted that “significant investment” is required to improve technology, but the state 911 fund is suffering from a structural deficit.

Scovill added that while the popular image from movies and TV of 911 call centers are massive, high-tech operations, that’s not the case for the majority of PSAPs. Most, he said, average only a few people working at any one time, and there’s a large disparity in the kinds of technology being used to field requests for emergency services. That’s why funding is needed to upgrade and replace older systems that can’t support text-to-911 functionality.

Although calling 911 has worked for years, texting to 911 has become a necessity, primarily due to the expectation of wireless device users that texting instead of calling about an emergency will be answered. For example, more than 30,000 text-to-911 messages to the York-Poquoson-Williamsburg Regional 911 Call Center in Virginia went completely unanswered during 2013, according to Terry Hall, the center’s chief of emergency communications.

In addition, texting provides those with poor cellular coverage a way to reach out in case of an emergency, as it requires the lowest level of connectivity. At the call center, an operator can also conduct simultaneous exchanges with multiple individuals via text if the situation warrants it, helping increase efficiency. Individuals with hearing impairments or other disabilities also benefit from text-to-911, as it enables them to communicate with emergency services in a simpler fashion.

“You add all those things together and there’s an interesting and unique way for texting to fit into the public-safety landscape,” Scovill said.

Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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