IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

What Will Reduced Stimulus Funding Mean for Next-Gen 911?

First responders, emergency dispatchers and public safety technology vendors are preparing to deal with a cold reality: Much less federal funding for 911 upgrades than needed or expected. What happens next for response times and innovation?

911 (1)
It’s one of the biggest questions right now when it comes to technology for public safety in the United States: How much funding will actually go to Next-Generation 911 efforts?

The push to upgrade emergency dispatch capabilities for the text, web and mobile age is among the most visible efforts in the wider world of government technology. As it once stood, that work was set for a $10 billion infusion of funds from the pending $2 trillion Build Back Better bill, but earlier this autumn that amount was slashed to $470 million.

As civics classes and even some classic grade school cartoons have long taught, what starts out in a proposed law often doesn’t end up in the approved version. But the potential loss of all that NG911 funding has resulted in a flurry of what-if and what-now considerations among the businesses that sell public safety technology and agencies that use it.

“Absent adequate federal funding, public safety agencies will be left with overly costly, incomplete, and non-interoperable solutions vulnerable to cyber attacks,” said Mel Maier, a captain in the Oakland County, Mich., Sheriff’s Office and chair of the Public Safety Next Generation 911 Coalition, in an email interview. “This will jeopardize the safety of the public and homeland security and result in have and have-not communities particularly in rural and economically disadvantaged areas.”

911 FUNDING NEEDS


Maier’s response reflects the general tone of comments from public safety professionals, technology providers and associations involved in emergency dispatch.

He said the original amount for NG911 funding in that federal bill stems from a 2018 Congressional study — a study that, as expansive at it was, did not fully account for the need for more cybersecurity. By his account, the national NG911 push needs $15 billion worth of funding.

The general idea behind Next-Generation 911, of course, is to more efficiently meet people in need of emergency assistance where they are — that might mean via text or mobile devices — and to more precisely fix their locations for first responders.

One data point helps to illustrate that point: Out of some 5,400 emergency dispatch centers in the U.S., perhaps half of them have the ability to accept emergency requests via text, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

As well, the NG911 push is happening not only as cybersecurity becomes an ever higher priority for state and local governments, but as debate builds about the proper balance between traditional police work and social services, and as more agencies work to deploy more digital tools.

All those issues are wrapped up in Next-Generation 911.

And that means a significantly lower level of funding than expected could produce wide ripples in the world of public safety, at least according to people who work in that particular part of government technology.

“Today’s commercial call centers are able to communicate with (callers) across text, chat, voice and video, and are provided with a rich history of callers with whom they’ve interacted, but our 911 system is decades behind,” Todd Piett, CEO of public safety software vendor Rave Mobile Safety, told Government Technology. “I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface of what can be done to better assist mental health callers by bridging in video counseling or off-loading emergency room traffic to urgent care facilities when tying together trained virtual clinicians and remote monitoring devices. All these types of solutions will be better enabled with an NG911 infrastructure.”


As federal lawmakers debate the Build Back Better bill, public safety experts are imagining what might happen at the much lower level of funding.

For one, sources expect that smaller, more rural agencies will generally come out worse than urban emergency dispatch centers that can often rely on a wider range of funding. More specifically, work to integrate different emergency response platforms — to take one example — could slow down, which in turn could make response times longer.

“You will have the haves and the have-nots,” said David Zolet, CEO of public safety software firm CentralSquare Technologies.

He anticipated that the difficulty of securing funding for pilot programs would intensify as agencies compete more fiercely for relatively limited dollars.

Indeed, as more state and local governments work to beef up digital services — an outgrowth of trends in play before and during the pandemic — this reduced funding for NG911 could have the opposite effect, at least according to Harriet Rennie-Brown, executive director of the National Association of State 911 Administrators (NASNA).

“It could also serve to create a further digital gap between the communities that have NG911 systems and those who do not,” she said via email. “Advances in communications technologies certainly are not slowing down, but it is definitely becoming more and more of a challenge for 911 authorities to keep pace. Without more significant funding, some areas will continue to fall behind.”

CAUSE FOR OPTIMISM?


Conventional wisdom — at least this week — is positive on the passage of the Build Back Better bill, though many details remain unclear. And while pessimism would seem to dominate the world of public safety technology about prospects for NG911 funding, it’s not all doom and gloom.

“I hope the Senate will correct it,” said CentralSquare’s Zolet about the funding. “The reality is that this is a bipartisan issue, so I am bullish that the right amount of resources will be approved, which will be good for clients.”

Others, however, seem to have a colder view of the reality.

“Based on the history of federal public safety funding for 911, it looks like the state and local 911 programs are going to have to figure another way to make NG911 happen,” said NASNA’s Rennie-Brown. “And that is going to take even more years than it already has. Back in 2000, our goal was Next-Gen in 2010.”

If those dimmer views prove right, it seems likely that the reduced funding could arrest technological development for emergency dispatch centers generally. That’s the outlook offered by Maier, of the Public Safety Next Generation 911 Coalition, when asked about how the reduced funding would impact private companies that sell public safety software and other tools.

“The ability of private companies to continue to develop innovative and truly interoperable solutions which are technologically neutral in their design and implementation is reduced,” he said. “Having sufficient funding to deploy this nationwide ensures commonly accepted standards are implemented in a consistent manner.”
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in New Orleans.