By Samantha Bloch
The U.S. 911 system receives more than 240 million calls each year according to the National Emergency Number Association, with at least 80% from wireless devices. The 911 system celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, but the technology used in most states is outdated and inefficient.
In most communities, a person can only communicate with a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) by dialing 911 and talking to the call taker. Transmitting photos and video is not yet an option.
In addition, current technology is unable to transmit precise geographic information that would enable public safety officials to act swiftly to save lives. It is also not uncommon for PSAPs to get overloaded with calls, leaving callers without help.
Public safety leaders have called for national implementation of Next Generation 911 (NG911), a state-of-the-art public safety technology. Among other enhanced capabilities, NG911 provides secure call networks, improves data and call routing capabilities, and integrates call and geo-location data for use by emergency responders.
But the modernization of state 911 systems requires investments in communications infrastructure, training of emergency responders and cyberattack prevention technology.
Lack of funding is among the main reasons states and localities have not effectively implemented NG911. As of 2017, according to the National 911 Program, while most states and territories had adopted an NG911 plan, only 35 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S Virgin Islands had at least one locality which had implemented or was in the process of implementing NG911.
Maryland is among the latest states to join this group, propelled by the efforts of Senator Cheryl Kagan (D), pictured above. After the deaths of three people in her district due to emergency response system failures, Kagan and her fellow lawmakers decided to study the problem in-depth and seek solutions. In 2018, SB 285 created the Commission to Advance Next Generation 911 across Maryland.
Under Kagan’s chairmanship, the commission submitted a 65-page report with 23 recommendations that were unanimously adopted. It proposed, among others, a funding model that would lay the foundation for the modernization reforms.
The new funding model was established in SB 339, a bipartisan bill enacted in April 2019 that introduced three changes to the existing funding mechanism.
First, the state portion of the 911 fee increased from 25 cents to 50 cents, allowing the state to fund a larger part of the costs and reducing the financial burden on the counties. Second, the total 911 fee, which amounts to $1.25 and includes a local fee of 75 cents, is now assessed per phone instead of per bill. Counties were also given the option to increase their local fees up to an additional 75 cents if future audits reveal persisting discrepancies between the money collected and the cost of the system. The commission estimated that the first two reforms alone would allow localities to go from covering on average 39% of their expenses to 84-100%.
These changes in the funding mechanism proposed by the commission garnered a consensus among all stakeholders.
“We had the right people in the room,” Kagan said when asked about what led to this success. “From 911 directors to cybersecurity and telecommunications experts to a disability advocate and a bipartisan group of legislators, everyone invested their time and expertise to move Maryland to Next Generation 911.”
Non-business, non-prepaid 911 user fees in the U.S. vary widely by state and locality and can range anywhere between 16 cents and $5, with most falling in the 50 cents to $2 range.
So far this year, three additional states have adopted legislation aimed at raising more funds to modernize 911 systems. California (SB 96) changed its funding model to charge a flat monthly fee on every cell phone and landline of up to 80 cents instead of a variable fee that relied more on landlines than on wireless phones. New York (AB 6546) authorized one of its counties to raise 911 fees to up to $1.30 per access line. And, Kansas (HB 2084) increased the monthly fee assessed to each 10-digit phone from 53 cents to 90 cents and the fee on prepaid wireless from 1.2% to 2.06%.
In addition to enjoying enhanced safety benefits, states implementing NG 911 could kill two birds with one stone by using the geocoding of residences to correctly assign voters to districts, as mentioned by NCSL’s Elections & Redistricting Program.
Samantha Bloch is a policy associate in NCSL’s Transportation Program and helps lead NCSL’s traffic safety and 911 portfolio.