911 service comes into Internet age

President Bush on Wednesday signed into law a bill that requires IP telephony service providers to provide 911 services and to create plans for a national IP emergency response network.

The New and Emerging Technologies 911 Improvement Act of 2008 was passed by the Senate last month.

Cellular phone service and voice-over IP providers already are required to provide 911 emergency call services and Enhanced 911 service, which includes answering points with information on the location and identity of callers. VOIP phones present a challenge for many 911 systems because the service is tied to an IP address rather than a location. Mobile IP phone service adds another wrinkle to the problem because the service is not necessarily tied to a cellular system that can be used to locate the caller.

The new law extends 911 service requirements for wireless providers to mobile IP voice service providers as well. It requires the Federal Communications Commission to establish regulations for providing customer access to the 911 system, and to ensure that service providers have access to third-party 911 technology and networks at commercial rates. It also amends privacy requirements and authorizes providers to supply customer information for 911 calls.

FCC regulations under the act are technology-neutral, but the law does require the commission to work with public-safety agencies and industry to develop best practices and procedures for addressing technical issues, including:
  • Defining geographic coverage areas for public safety answering points;
  • Defining network diversity requirements for delivery of IP-enabled 911 and enhanced 911 calls;
  • Call-handling in the event of call overflow or network outages;
  • Public safety answering point certification and testing requirements;
  • Validation procedures for inputting and updating location information in relevant databases; and
  • The format for delivering address information to public safety answering points.

The law also requires the national Telecommunications and Information Administration to develop for Congress a plan for migrating to a national IP-enabled emergency network capable of receiving and responding to all citizen-activated emergency communications. Many public-safety answering points that today receive 911 calls are not equipped to receive other types of IP communications, such as e-mail, instant messaging and text messaging, but during emergencies when communications systems can be overwhelmed they often are more reliable than voice services.

The National Emergency Number Association (NENA), a nonprofit group that addresses emergency communications issues, applauded the new law but said Congress and the Bush administration need to provide funding for local communities to upgrade the public safety answering points (PSAPs)that will use this technology.

'The law's provisions will improve access to 911 for all Americans and help ensure that our nation's 911 system is able to keep up with advancements in communications technology,' said NENA chief executive officer Brian Fontes. 'This legislation will save lives.'

But the technology can only work if PSAPs are equipped to use it, which requires money.

'Without adequate funding, 911 systems will continue to fall behind in meeting the increasing challenges presented to them every day,' Fontes said. 'It is time to honor those who are there to answer the growing number of calls by providing congressionally authorized federal funding to assist their efforts,'.

Funding for 911 grants was authorized by the ENHANCE 911 Act of 2004, but Congress has not yet appropriated funds and the administration's budget request to Congress has not included grant funds.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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