Moving 911 Out of the Landline Era

If our 1968-vintage emergency-number system were enabled for the newer ways we communicate, it could work a lot better — and cost a lot less.

by Anne Kim / February 26, 2015

Among the many services state and local governments provide, few are as popular, as trusted or as essential as 911. Americans place roughly 240 million 911 calls each year, says the National Emergency Number Association, and access to 911 is nearly universal. Nevertheless, the system so many Americans rely on today to report emergencies and other problems stands on the brink of obsolescence.

While Americans are now accustomed to using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social-media platforms for the rapid-fire sharing of news and information, most 911 systems can't handle the texts, videos, data and images that we increasingly use to communicate.

That's because in many parts of the country 911 is still rooted in the landline-telephone-based infrastructure that gave the system its start in 1968. As of November 2014, just 152 counties in 18 states even had the capability for citizens to text to 911. And only a handful of states -- such as Iowa and Vermont -- have taken the leap to Internet-enabled 911, known as "next-generation 911."

But for states that do invest in the transition, the rewards include not just better public safety but cost savings in the long run.

Iowa, for example, recently unveiled "Alert Iowa," a two-way emergency "mass notification" system -- among the first of its kind -- that allows Iowans and Iowa's 911 to talk to each other using social media, text and email.

"The traditional way of using 911 when someone has something to report is very closed and one-way," says Iowa state Sen. Jeff Danielson, who led the effort to enact Alert Iowa. "A citizen calls in, they give the information, they hang up, and nothing more is done. Under mass notification, the dispatch centers can then push that information out on Facebook, Twitter, text and email, engaging the public to give us more information about what's going on."

Danielson, who also serves as a firefighter in Cedar Falls, says the two-way system could have prevented such tragedies as the abduction and murder of 10-year-old Lyric Cook-Morrisey and 8-year-old Elizabeth Collins from his district in 2012. "There's a window of opportunity when children go missing that closes as time goes on," said Danielson. "If there had been a more rapid way to inform the public of where the girls were and what they were doing, we could have engaged the eyes and ears of the community much better."

One big advantage of the new system, Danielson says, is that it was centrally deployed statewide rather than individually by Iowa's 115 dispatch centers. Not only does this enable the rapid dissemination of information and enhance interoperability, it's cost-effective. "That saves a lot of money in licensing fees, operational software, etc., all across the state," said Danielson.

In 2009, the federal government issued its blueprint calling for a national transition to Internet-enabled 911, citing the same kinds of benefits that Iowa now sees. In addition, the report said, a national migration to next-generation 911 would mean better interoperability within states, among states and with the federal government, which could be crucial in a large-scale emergency or terrorist attack. The report also found that under some scenarios Internet-enabled 911 could save as much as $19 billion over 20 years in comparison to the current system.

In Iowa, investment in next-generation 911 was the result of a two-year-long campaign by Danielson to reform emergency-number funding. Unlike many states, Iowa hadn't been adding 911 user fees to wireless and prepaid phones. "Our entire 911 dispatch center revenue stream was based on landlines," said Danielson. By equalizing the fees on all users, the state raised $3.7 million.

Some states could find money to invest in 911 simply by ending the diversion of 911 surcharges to other purposes. According to the Federal Communications Commission, states spent just 4.5 percent of the 911 fees collected in 2013 on investments to deploy next-generation 911. But the report also found that states diverted more than $183 million -- roughly 8 percent of the fees collected -- to uses other than 911, including to their general-fund budgets or to pay down debt.

While overall public faith in government has eroded to all-time lows, states and local governments have been largely fortunate in their ability to maintain their citizens' trust. But maintaining that trust also requires investment. Where better to invest than in a service as fundamental as 911?

An interview with Sen. Danielson about Iowa's modernization of 911 appears in Republic 3.0.

This column was originally published by Governing. VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government.

Platforms & Programs