Lawmakers are mulling new legislation and other measures to hasten nationwide use of e9-1-1 service, which allows dispatchers located in Public Service Answering Points (PSAPs) to pinpoint the location of 9-1-1 calls made from cell phones.
It's estimated that 150,000 9-1-1 calls each day are made on wireless phones. But in most cases, dispatchers are unable to locate the source of the calls. The issue is important to truckers, who often see accidents or are in a position to respond to emergency situations.
"We can't overstate the importance of this technology," said Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY. "When an emergency occurs, Americans put their faith in three numbers - 9-1-1."
Clinton and other lawmakers, including Sen. Conrad Burns, R-MT, Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-CA, and John Shimkus, R-IL, testified March 5 as part of the E911 Caucus, a committee of legislators created last year to ensure the nation's largest wireless carriers can enable police answering a 9-1-1 call to locate, within 50 feet, the cell phone used to make the call.
Clinton has been under pressure in New York since Jan. 24, when four teen-agers in a sinking boat used a cell phone to dial 911. The teen-agers have yet to be found. A wireless carrier in the area said had police been using e9-1-1 gear, the chances of a rescue would probably have been higher.
Despite the Federal Communications Commission's 2005 rollout goal for e9-1-1 pinpoint location service, wireless carriers have told the commission they are finding the task difficult. All have missed the first of a series of deadlines to begin adding the capabilities to large portions of their network.
Only two carriers now offer any kind of e9-1-1 service, and only in relatively small areas. The FCC has issued waivers to companies who say they need more time.
However, FCC Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy said the FCC was beginning to pressure carriers and others to develop the technology through consent decrees.
"We will step up to our responsibility," she said.
Some new solutions
E-911 Caucus members urged closer coordination among local 9-1-1 PSAPs, public safety agencies, wireless carriers, technology vendors, equipment manufacturers and local wireline carriers to ensure that systems in all states are "interoperable" - that they can communicate with each other.
"It would be tragic if we ended up with different systems that can't talk among themselves," Clinton said.
In addition, Rep. Eshoo said oversight responsibilities for e9-1-1 services should be transferred to the new Department of Homeland Security.
To help with funding problems, New York State Assembly member David Koon testified about a bill he introduced (A-3911) and passed by the New York General Assembly Feb. 24. Koon's interest stems from his daughter Jennifer's murder in 1993. While she was able to use a cell phone to call for help, the dispatcher could not locate her and could only listen to her pleas for help.
Koon's measure, similar to a funding mechanism in place in Virginia, would use telephone bill surcharge money to issue bonds so municipalities can immediately gain funds to cover service costs, equipment purchases and needed software.
"This would give municipalities the money they need now, provided they spell out a plan and a timetable," said Koon, who added that 50 percent of Virginia PSAPs could now pinpoint the location of 9-1-1 calls made with cell phones.
Meanwhile, FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said, "There's no higher priority for us than e9-1-1 service, because it's a matter of life and death."
He said the FCC would put more emphasis on enforcement and noted an e9-1-1 initiative the commission is planning April 29 to heighten public awareness of the issue.
--by Dick Larsen, senior editor