Congressional group turns spotlight on enhanced 911

Capitol Hill lawmakers today launched the congressional E-911 Caucus, a bipartisan group that wants to make sure emergency call centers get the funding they need to comply with a federal mandate for enhanced-911 services.

A group of lawmakers today launched the congressional E-911 Caucus, a committee of senators and representatives who want to make sure that emergency call centers get the funding they need to comply with the Federal Communications Commission's Enhanced-911 services mandate.

When fully in place, the E-911 services will let emergency dispatchers track the location of any cellular phone that is turned on.

The group wants to "shine the light of day" on E-911 so that the technology is "spread ubiquitously across the country," Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said.

"We're grappling with huge distances in Montana," said Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who will serve as a co-chairman of the caucus along with Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.).

The distance from the eastern edge of the state to the western edge is farther than from the District of Columbia to Chicago, he said. "We've got a lot of dirt between light bulbs. Wireless is the only way."

E-911 services use a variety of technologies, including triangulation and Global Positioning System programs, to pinpoint the location of cell phone callers, Burns said.

The caucus' members believe E-911 services are a self-evident boon to public safety, a "no-brainer. But you won't believe how many potholes we ran into," Burns said. "There are some people who, when they pick up a telephone and dial, don't want anyone to know where they are, by golly."

The nation's wireless carriers have until 2005 to adapt their service so that emergency dispatchers can find the location of a 911 call made on a cell phone. All of the nation's wireless carriers missed the FCC's original deadline of October 2001 to begin making the first series of enhancements to the 911 system.

E-911 systems will help save lives and avert emergencies, Clinton said. "It's long past time for the federal government to address these issues, so local governments can upgrade their systems," she said. "State and local response centers are still operating in the past."

The caucus will focus on funding and training for public-safety answering point (PSAP) readiness, Clinton said. "We also want to make sure FCC has the authority to provide leadership."

Funding has been a sore spot. Millions of dollars in New York City telecommunications surcharges, which had been earmarked for upgrading 911 communications systems, have been siphoned off for other purposes by the city's cash-strapped government, Clinton said.

Clinton cited the case of four teenage boys whose boat sank last month on Long Island Sound. The boys called 911 from a cell phone. New York City's 911 system does not have the technology that would let dispatchers pinpoint the location of the call. The boys were never found.

"People put their faith in three numbers: 911," Clinton said.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), also a caucus member, has been working on E-911 since 1996, she said. "Most people buy a cell phone 'just in case,' " Eshoo said. "But dial 911, and they can't assist you or find you. We can do much better."

More than half of all 911 calls are made from cell phones, Eshoo said. The ultimate goal of the caucus is to make sure that "everyone who has a wireless instrument can access 911" and get help, she said.

"People think we already have this capability, to find people from cell phones," Clinton said. "The kids in the row boat in New York thought this."