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Future of Public Safety

Let’s Upgrade 911 for the 21st Century

For 50 years, 911 has been the vital link between Americans and emergency help. But upgrades are urgently needed to ensure that the system keeps up with the times.

Nationwide, an estimated 240 million 911 calls are made per year, and every 911 professional is painfully aware that we’re in a never-ending struggle to keep up with new technologies, human resource challenges and budget crunches.

All major telecommunications companies and field responders are moving rapidly toward newer, faster and more resilient networks. But the majority of America’s 911 centers are still operating with decades-old technology, making them the weakest link in the emergency communications chain.

That’s why it is time to accelerate the rollout of Next Generation 911 (NG911).

With NG911, it will be easier to locate callers more accurately, and those in need of help will be able to send text messages, photos, videos and other data to 911 centers. For example, a caller could send streaming video from a highway collision or automatically share personal medical information about a deadly allergy.

Also, overwhelmed 911 centers could quickly transfer calls and data to other centers during disasters, cyber-attacks or service outages — and also when calls are misrouted. This would be a life-saving capability that is difficult or impossible in most communities today. 

The good news is that the technology and standards to make NG911 a reality are available today. Leaders in public safety and industry have set the aggressive goal of full nationwide deployment by the end of 2020. But it will not happen without strong leadership at all levels of government.

Because 911 systems are operated at the state and local level, a nationwide deployment of NG911 depends on educating and coordinating thousands of leaders at every tier of government while rethinking how 911 is funded. The traditional revenue stream — a patchwork of local taxes and fees on wireless, wireline and/or VoIP phone services — has shrunk as households and businesses have shifted to phone services that do not contribute to 911 funds.

These challenges, while daunting, must be solved because all Americans deserve high-performing 911 services, no matter where they live, work or travel. It is time to move 911 into the 21st century. Millions of callers can’t wait.

Brian Fontes, CEO, National Emergency Number Association, [email protected]

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