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Lawmakers focus on fixing outdated 911 emergency call system

Posted at 5:01 AM, Dec 22, 2017

Two efforts are under way on Capitol Hill to shore up the nation’s vulnerable and outdated 911 emergency call system.

A Scripps News investigation published in July found that hackers have taken down 911 systems in some areas of the country, while budget-strapped state governments continue to raid funds collected from consumers that are meant for upgrading 911 systems. An analysis of Federal Communications Commission records found states diverted more than $1 billion from 2008-2015 and spent it on unrelated items.

“It’s outright theft,” is the way Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., described diverting 911 money. The senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee  sent a letter last week to David Redl, the newly installed administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, urging him to “ensure scarce, dedicated Next Generation 9-1-1 funding is utilized for its intended purpose.”

Next Generation 911 is a modernization of 911 systems that will allow video, text and multimedia communication with emergency operators over a more reliable network.

While some states are repeat offenders, records show at least two dozen states have diverted money during at least one calendar year, including Shimkus’s state of Illinois. “It's almost like a slap in my face,” he said, noting that in previous years he “was raising (his) state up as being the good example. Now they're a bad example and it's frustrating.”

Federal lawmakers have largely failed to figure out a way to prevent states from shifting money away from 911 systems, because fees are collected by state and local governments that place a tax on telephone bills.

Shimkus said he, along with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, immediately honed in on a new federal source of money:  $115 million in federal 911 grants the National Telecommunications and Information Administration is preparing to roll out to states for the first time. Shimkus asked the new NTIA administrator to “do everything within your authority to discourage states from diverting these essential funds from the lifesaving applications for which they were intended, and for which taxpayers believe they are being used.”  The longtime Illinois congressman has been trying to find creative ways to curb 911 fee diversion since at least 2003. 

On another 911 front, Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., a co-chair of the Congressional NextGen 9-1-1 Caucus, introduced legislation this week that is designed to upgrade the nation’s 911 call centers by expanding the federal 911 grant program, establishing a NextGen 911 advisory board and requiring new safeguards to help systems guard against cyberattacks.  Her new bill would require federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security to help identify cyber vulnerabilities in 911 systems, and train local and state governments on how to defend against them.

The Scripps News investigation reported that calls to 911 centers still travel through decades-old infrastructure that, according to cyber-experts, is vulnerable to attacks. In Arizona, a teenager sparked a multi-state 911 outage after he tweeted a link to malicious code that caused cell phones to repeatedly dial 911.

“Our 911 call centers are the first point of contact for Americans in an emergency situation, but they rely on technology that has been in place since the time of the first 911 call 50 years ago,” Rep. Eshoo said. “We need to make certain the public safety community has all the tools it needs to serve and protect our communities because in life-threatening situations, seconds matter. This legislation will help bring our 911 call centers into the 21st Century.”

Senate Democrats introduced companion legislation earlier this year.  Eshoo said her legislation will evolve as she receives feedback from fellow members of Congress.  She also expects the GAO to release a report in the next few weeks that could highlight the extent of risks to the nation’s security that can be traced back to diverting 911 funds. 

Eshoo’s bill does not have Republican co-sponsorship, but she believes takedowns of 911 systems in Arizona, Texas, California and elsewhere could draw them in.

“The diminished system is going to be the easiest one to be hacked. I mean it just comes with what is taking place in the world today,” she said, noting that long wait times and inability to get through to 911 systems that can be easily flooded jeopardizes national security, and could “grab the attention of members from both sides of the aisle.” 

Mark Greenblatt is the senior national investigative correspondent for the Scripps Washington Bureau. You can follow him @greenblattmark