FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Tells APCO Members Failure is Not an Option in Next Generation 9-1-1
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler told the nation’s largest public safety association last week that the implementation of next-generation 9-1-1 isn’t moving quickly enough for the betterment of public safety, and said Congress must step in to accelerate the process with legislation designed to help further the essential shared mission of public safety.
Wheeler praised the packed Washington, DC, Convention Center ballroom of public safety employees for their ability to continue to provide a critical service in the midst of rapidly changing technology every year, and thanked APCO “for being a great partner in this time of change”.
“Amidst this change you do courageous work on the front lines every day responding to emergencies,” Wheeler said. “I appreciate the absolutely essential role that you all are playing for the assurance of the public safety of our citizens.”
But while there is much to be encouraged about in terms of technology and the adoption of new rules – including greater focus on text-to-9-1-1 service, improving the accuracy of location data in wireless 9-1-1 calls, and 9-1-1 system reliability, Wheeler said there remains much to be done.
“I think everyone will agree we are not where we need to be,” he said.
Wheeler said legislation concerning next-generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1) is too slow.
“We’ve made it clear that we will not tolerate 9-1-1 failure.” Wheeler said. “The switch to digital has changed the nature of providing 9-1-1 services – that’s good. But it can’t result in outages caused by growing pains. In the last four months, we have issued almost $40 million in penalties for outages that left millions of consumers unable to reach 9-1-1 for hours at a time. I cannot imagine a more harrowing experience than desperately needing to call 9-1-1 because a loved one needs medical attention – only to pick up the phone and hear nothing. Americans won’t stand for it, and we stand with them.”
Later this year, a federal task force is expected to establish guidelines for PSAP’s which are trying to migrate to NG9-1-1.
Wheeler noted that financial struggles often hinder PSAP’s from finding funding to move from a legacy network to NG9-1-1 system.
“Maintaining two infrastructures increases cost and complexity at a time when our public-safety resources are already stretched razor-thin,” Wheeler said. “…But throughout our communications infrastructure, this is being done, and done successfully.”
“So, let me be clear,” Wheeler added. “Just because the slow implementation of next-generation 9-1-1 is understandable does not make it excusable. Today’s fractured implementation of 9-1-1 and NG9-1-1 capabilities leaves Americans confused and at greater risk. Lives are at stake. We have to do better.”
Wheeler said local municipalities must resist the temptation to take funds intended for the purpose of improving next generation 9-1-1 and diverting it for other needs.
And he believes the federal government should get involved in the national mapping process.
“The maps our PSAP’s use to identify where callers are calling from should not end at the county or state line,” Wheeler said. “The airwaves that carry the vast majority of our emergency messages don’t understand geography, so we shouldn’t be wed to geographic demarcations developed decades ago.”
Wheeler reminded the audience of the tragedy of Atlanta resident Shanell Anderson, who died one week after her SUV sank and filled with water as she spoke with a 9-1-1 operator who couldn’t locate her vehicle because her mobile signal was picked up by an antenna in an adjoining PSAP’s area that did not have the maps that would allow them to locate her.
“Congress could authorize establishment of a national maps database to ensure that every PSAP has access to the latest and most accurate maps and uses them,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler said ultimately the nation cannot fail in this mission because the stakes are too high, and that everyone involved – from the federal government, to wireless carriers to the local PSAP’s – must remember they share a role in this critical process.
“Everybody that is part of the 9-1-1 call completion process needs to bear in mind that they are carrying their fair share of responsibility to make sure that the most important call any of us will ever make, goes through,” Wheeler said.