Next Generation 911

By Jill Mullen and Amanda Essex | Vol . 23, No. 14 / April 2015

NCSL NewsDid you know?

  • U.S. homes have fewer traditional landlines, making it more difficult for emergency workers to locate 911 callers.
  • Indiana, Maine and Vermont are the first states to offer text-to-911 technology statewide.
  • The Federal Communications Commission is working to align emergency services with wireless and cellular technologies.

The 911 emergency system has been a staple for dispatching law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services for decades. The legacy 911 system is becoming increasingly less effective, however, as telecommunications services evolve and more people rely on cell phones and Internet Protocol (IP) devices to communicate. Traditionally, callers who dial 911 from a landline phone are connected to a 911 call center—a public safety answering point (PSAP)—where the caller’s phone number and address are displayed on an operator’s screen. This provides critical information for firefighters, paramedics and law enforcement officers. Wireless calls, however, are not as easily identified and create obstacles for dispatchers who are trying to determine a caller’s location. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, an estimated two of every five homes in the United States used only wireless telephones in 2013, and that number is growing,

Stakeholders at the local, state and national levels have been working to implement Next Generation 911 (NG911), which would allow public emergency communication services to accept digital data, including text messages, videos and images, and enable transferring 911 communications from one PSAP to another. For text-to-911 to be most effective, text messages must include the address or location where emergency responders are needed.

Federal Action

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) initiated the Enhanced 911 (E911) rulemaking in 1996 to facilitate the transition of 911 services from landline-only to wireless and cellular technologies. The first phase allows 911 call takers to view a wireless caller’s number and identify the cell tower closest to the phone. The second phase (currently being implemented) increases accuracy by providing call takers with the wireless caller’s latitude and longitude.

While E911 focuses on the caller’s location, the FCC also is helping to implement Next Generation 911, which focuses primarily on text-to-911. In August 2014, the FCC ordered all wireless companies to develop the capability to deliver emergency text messages to public safety answering points that request them by June 30, 2015. In addition, the National Emergency Number Association initiated a voluntary agreement with the four largest wireless companies—AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon—to make 911 texting accessible in locations where the local PSAP is equipped to accept texts. The National Emergency Management Association estimates it will cost states a total of almost $12 billion from the states to upgrade the 911 system to accept all digital data.

State Action

Some states and municipalities already have implemented Next Generation 911. Counties in at least 19 states, including New York, Texas and Pennsylvania, currently have PSAPs that accept 911 texts. Indiana, Maine and Vermont are the first states to offer text-to-911 technology statewide.

Other states have passed legislation requiring agencies to study the transition to NG911. California enacted a bill in 2014 requiring development of a plan and timeline for testing, implementing and operating an NG911 system statewide. Delaware and Nebraska passed legislation in 2013 that requires the Public Service Commission and the Department of Public Safety and Homeland Security, respectively, to study and make findings and recommendations regarding NG911, including the ability to support text-to-911 service.

Funding. Currently, 911 systems are operated at the state and local levels, resulting in a range of service capabilities and funding. This has caused some to argue that coordinated government efforts are necessary in order to reach the final goal of fully implemented NG911 nationwide. Funding is crucial—the projected cost for a major metropolitan area to fully implement NG911 is between $5 million and $7 million.

Funding for NG911 comes from several sources. The 911 Implementation Coordination Office created by the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 offers implementation grants, and fees on consumers’ telephone bills also support 911 service. These fees, which are managed by the states, can differ, depending on the telecommunications service type—wireless, landline or Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). State legislatures decide how these fees are allocated, so how and where they are used varies widely. Four states—Montana, Nebraska, Ohio and Wyoming—do not allow 911 funds to be used for implementing Next Generation 911, according to the FCC. Some states use the funds collected for 911 for other purposes not related to emergency services, such as balancing the state budget.

Supporters of advanced 911 systems that can accommodate new and emerging communications methods say it is important that funding be coordinated between all government levels. Such coordination will more quickly lead to a system with virtually no dropped calls, pinpoint accuracy regarding a caller’s location and increased multimedia capabilities.

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