WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Stucknation: 911 Off the Hook
How the Great Analog-Digital Divide Puts Lives at Risk
Monday, February 14, 2011 - 12:00 AM
Almost a decade after the attacks of September 11th the nation's most essential emergency local lifeline -- 911 -- remains a local patchwork of antiquated technology vulnerable to failure when people need it most.
In 2010 the Congressional Research Service reported the nation's underlying 911 local call systems "operate exclusively on an analog technology using an architecture of circuits and switches" that date back to when ATT was the "regulated monopoly providing most of the nation's phone service."
That monopoly was broken up in 1984, 27 years ago. As we know, digital technology and cell phones have been dominant for years.
Yet even now, CSR finds 911 systems across the country are "unable to accommodate the latest advances in telecommunications technology and are increasingly out-dated, costly to maintain, and in danger of failure."
Consider the tragic case of the Virginia Tech students in 2007 caught up in that grisly mass shooting. Many thought they could text 911. They could not. And yet even today the overwhelming number of Americans cannot text 911. The college kids must have thought that surely, by 2007, the grown-ups would have figured out how to make that possible and made it happen.
The most recent case of 911 analog dysfunction in a digital world was not tripped off by a lone gunman or terrorist attack -- it was a snow storm.
FCC spokesman Robert Kenny confirms that during the December 26 East Coast blizzard, federal regulators got reports of 911 system problems with dropped cell calls up the I-95 corridor from Virginia into New England. That same storm hit the New York City's 911 system hard, with frustrated callers reporting busy signals and recorded messages asking them to stay on hold.
Last year, two thirds of all 911 calls were made from cell phones. And it was only last year -- after years of industry wrangling -- that the FCC began making rules with teeth that require cell carriers to reliably provide 911 networks with basic data such as the origin of emergency calls and the physical location of the caller.
But as the mass migration of 911 callers to cell service occurred the existing system of 911 call center technology was increasingly unprepared to handle it.
"When Americans call 911 from their landlines, first responders receive location information that's accurate more than 98 percent of the time," wrote FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. "When Americans call 911 from their mobile phones first responders are about 50 percent less likely to receive precise information about your location.".
"The inaccuracy is not just a few feet, but up to one or two miles -- and sometimes no location information at all," warns Genachowski. His statement came on the occassion of the FCC rulemaking just last year that mandates the cell industry roll out their upgrades with accountability over an eight-year period.
Even now, New York City's FDNY ends up in isolated cases dispatching units to a cell tower instead of where the actual fire emergency is.
Meanwhile, at the state level, several states have been raiding the 911 phone tax cookie jar as the system falls farther and farther behind.
For years New York State has been diverting hundreds of millions of dollars intended for improving the state's 911 Emergency call systems to its general fund.
Every month phone consumers are billed about $1.20, which is supposed to fund the 911 system. A spokesman for the state budget office conceded at least 50 cents of that, or more than 40 percent, goes to help the state balance its budget -- not 911.
Kenny, with the Federal Communication Commission, says the FCC tracks similar state diversions around the country just over the last few years.
"It's basically a nominal fee on consumer’s wire line and wireless bills," says Kenny. "It will go to the state level and the state makes decisions on that funding. But by Congressional direction or by law, it has to go towards 911 services. And in cases where they haven't done that, that's something Congress will have to look at."
A 2010 FCC report lists Arizona. Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois. Nebraska, Oregon, Rhode Island and Wisconsin alongside New York as having also diverted 911 funds to other budget needs.
So how did the public end up with such a degraded 911 lifeline? Why wasn't the telecommunications industry pushed harder? Just who are our political leaders talking with about telcom policies like 911?
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the telcom industry went from giving just $900,000 in campaign donations in 1990 to $17 million in 2000. By 2008 they had spent another $64 million in lobbying. That's a lot of conversations.
And so today you can tweet to follow your favorite Reality TV Star, text to pick the next American Idol, but you can't be sure first responders can find you if you use your cell to try and save your own life.