GAO: States misusing wireless Enhanced 911 implementation funds

Over the past decade, states have made significant progress in implementing wireless Enhanced 911 (E911), concludes a Government Accountability Office report. But some states, auditors say, are dipping into E911 implementation funds and using the money for other purposes.

Wireless E911 service refers to the capability of 911 call takers to automatically receive location information from 911 callers using mobile phones. According to the GAO, nearly 98 percent of 911 call centers are capable of receiving location information under E911. This represents a significant improvement since 2003 when implementation was only 65 percent.

The good news is that all 50 states and the District of Columbia reported collecting--or authorizing local entities to collect--funds for wireless E911 implementation, and most states reported using these funds for their intended purpose. However, six states--Arizona, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, New York, and Rhode Island--reported using a total of almost $77 million of funds collected for 911 implementation for other purposes.

"Using funds in this way is permissible by state law in these states, but it creates the risk of undermining the credibility of 911 fees in those states," states the GAO. "The manner in which FCC collects and reports information on state 911 funds limits the usefulness of its annual report."

Deploying wireless E911 is the responsibility of state and local governments. Nevertheless, the Federal Communications Commission is required by law to report annually on the funds states collect to provide 911 services such as E911.

"Contrary to best practices for collecting and analyzing data, FCC uses only open-ended questions to solicit information from states, lacks written guidelines for interpreting states' responses and ensuring that results can be reproduced, and does not describe the methodology used to analyze the data it collects," auditors charged. "As a result, FCC is missing an opportunity to analyze trends and to provide more detailed aggregated information that would be useful to decision makers."

The GAO recommended that the FCC should follow best practices for data collection and analysis to improve its current method of collecting and reporting information on state 911 funds. In response, the FCC concurred with GAO's recommendation and agreed to take action to address it.

Auditors also highlighted the fact that the current E911 system is not designed to accommodate emergency communications from the range of new technologies in common use today that support text, data, and video. Next Generation (NG911) will enable the public to reach 911 call centers through voice and data, such as text messages.

However, according to the GAO, there are a variety of technical, regulatory, and funding challenges to implementing NG911. For example, many of the existing state and federal regulations governing 911 were written before the technological capabilities of NG911 existed.

In related news, a January 2013 staff report from the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau found many of the widespread outages and 9-1-1 service interruptions that occurred in late June 2012 when the derecho storm struck the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states were preventable. The FCC report documented the serious service breakdowns both during and after the storm, including a lack of back-up power to central offices and failures of the service providers' monitoring systems.

As a result, the derecho left 3.6 million people unable to contact 9-1-1 for varying periods of time due to carrier network problems. In its report, the FCC bureau noted that a significant number of 9-1-1 systems and services were partially or completely down for several days after the derecho. In all, 77 9-1-1 call centers serving six states lost some degree of connectivity, including vital information on the location of 9-1-1 calls.

To learn more:
- read the GAO report