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An Emergency Communications Safety Net: Integrating 911 and Other Services

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The present capability and future effectiveness of America's network of emergency telecommunications services are among the homeland security issues under review by Congress and other entities. Emergency calls (911) on both wireline (landline) and wireless networks are considered by many to be part of this network. The 9/11 Commission recommended that 911 call centers be included in planning for emergency responses. As technologies that can support 911 improve, many are seeing the possibility of integrating 911 into a wider safety net of emergency communications and alerts. Without robust support and back-up, 911 systems can be overwhelmed or rendered useless, as occurred in many locations after Hurricane Katrina struck Gulf Coast communities on August 29, 2005.

One of the intents of Congress in passing the Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act of 1999 (P.L. 106-81), and of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in implementing the act, is to make 911 technology universally available throughout the United States. A 2002 report, known as the Hatfield Report, recognized the need to upgrade 911 infrastructure nationwide, discussed some of the difficulties encountered, and recommended the creation of a 911 bureau at the Executive level. Congress addressed recommendations from the Hatfield Report with provisions that were passed in the ENHANCE 911 Act of 2004 (P.L. 108-494). This legislation creates a five-year federal program for 911 implementation and coordination and authorizes funds for a matching grant program. Appropriations for the program have yet to be allocated although other funding is available through programs within the Department of Transportation.

Legislation in the 109th Congress covering 911 or call centers includes companion bills S. 1063 (Senator Nelson) and H.R. 2418 (Representative Gordon) -- focusing on assuring access to 911 call centers for users of Voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) telephone service and on improving the delivery of 911 services nationwide; companion bills S. 211(Senator Clinton) and H.R. 896 (Representative Bilirakis) -- concerning improvements in the capacity of municipal help services provided by call centers; H.R. 214 (Representative Stearns) -- providing for a new regulatory category for Internet communications and also referencing 911 access for VoIP users; and H.R. 733 (Representative Weiner) -- seeking to assure service in underground areas such as subway transportation systems. Current transportation funding legislation (SAFETEA-LU, H.R. 3) has incorporated some language from companion bills S. 611 (Senator Collins) and H.R. 1240 (Representative Hefley) to establish advisory bodies that support improvements in Emergency Medical Services, including 911 systems.

This report reviews key points about the implementation of 911 and reviews some of the ways in which it might be integrated with existing or envisioned networks or services. It will be updated.