California and 9-1-1, Time To Act

By ATFN Staff

Fifty years ago, the first 9-1-1 call was made in the United States. It’s been an integral part of Americans’ national trust ever since that an ambulance, law enforcement professional, or firefighter will come to one’s aide if calling that number. What’s less known, however, is how the system is paid for. But if legislators in California don’t act soon, it’s they’ll find out the hard way why this funding can’t be overlooked.

In California, the nation’s most populous state, a less-than-one percent surcharge on in-state phone calls has raised the necessary funding for the 9-1-1 system, called SETNA (State Emergency Telephone Number Account). But this funding mechanism is increasingly outdated. Last year $69 million was raised, but there’s been a 39% reduction over the last 10 years. That’s because the tariff relies heavily on a landline tariff, and as anyone who has lived through the migration to cellular devices can attest, there are just fewer calls made on traditional devices. The funding is slowly drying up.

Indeed, as a recent report in the Sacramento Bee says, “There’s little disagreement that 911 technology desperately needs an upgrade in California. The system dates back to the 1960s and the state admits it’s failed in times of crisis.”

Radio parts needed for the network are no longer manufactured. Moreover, the current 9-1-1 system is not taking advantage of the latest technology and leaving citizens endanger. Last year following a crack in a dam that forced the evacuation of dispatch centers in three California counties, as the Bee article reports, locals were left “incommunicado” with 9-1-1 professionals.

Enter California Senate Bill 870 and Assembly Bill 1836. Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed wrapping both bills together, pending approval from two-thirds of the California Legislature, to establish a flat, monthly fee on every access line that can utilize the 9-1-1 system of between 20 and 80-cents. The fee would be implemented January 1, is estimated to raise $138 million during its first year, and would support both legacy and Next-Gen 9-1-1.

But the plan has drawn opponents. Some legislators point to the $9 billion surplus the state currently enjoys and says if funding needs to be increased, funds should be drawn from that pot. Others are showing hesitation toward any measure that they view as a tax increase, citing a California legislator who is facing a recall election due to his support of a previous tax increase.

There are shortcomings in both arguments forwarded by opponents, however. First, as Patrick Mallon, assistant director of public safety communications at the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, told The Bee, “There is significant danger in tying the future of the 911 system to a budget surplus we have in 2018-2019. This legislation will last for another 25 years. What if we’re flush this year and not next year?”

Second and more, importantly, however, the new plan would build the necessary 911 structure for tomorrow. Brian Ferguson, a deputy spokesperson for the governor’s office, told Capitol Weekly, that recent wildfire disasters and the Oroville evacuation have meant dispatch centers were “unable to receive 911 calls due to fire damaged infrastructure or 911 calls were not answered because the dispatch centers were evacuated.”

For the nearly 450 PSAPs across the state, connectivity is vital for saving lives. At latest count, there are 17 uncontained fires raging across California, and first-responders from paramedics to firefighters are working around the clock to keep homes, businesses and communities safe. What’s needed in this heightened environment is not just traditional, or legacy, 911 operations but Next Generation 911 services, which allow citizens to send a text or an image to dispatch, greatly increasing the quality of shareable information to the emergency response professionals.

In other words, an investment by California legislators in their own public safety futures is long overdue. But neither bill has been scheduled for a vote, and the California legislature goes into recess at the end of August. So, time is running out. Please contact your California legislator to let them know you support building the future 911 system.

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