Briefing Report: 911 -€“ Can U Hear Me Now?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


The phone number 911 is synonymous with emergency response, but our rapidly changing technology may not always provide the response we seek.  The 911 service first deployed in the United States over 40 years ago, but it took almost two decades before many municipalities had 911 service.  In 1999 Congress directed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to designate 911 the universal emergency number for all telephone services, wireline and wireless.

The Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act of 1999 [1] was enacted with the intent of “improving safety by encouraging and facilitating the prompt deployment of a nationwide, seamless communications infrastructure for emergency services.”  Since then, the FCC has established transition periods for areas in which 911 was not in use as an emergency telephone number and worked to upgrade 911 services to incorporate our changing technology.

In 1972 California enacted the Warren-911 Emergency Assistance Act [2] and designated the number 911 as the primary emergency telephone number in the state.  The state now has approximately 460 local Public Safety Answering Points (PSAP) that receive about 25 million 911 voice calls per year.

How it Works

The 911 network is a vital part of the emergency response and disaster preparedness system, often serving as the first notification to emergency personnel.  When a person calls 911 he/she is connected to a PSAP dispatcher who is trained to route the call to the appropriate local emergency medical, fire, or law enforcement agency.  The dispatcher verifies the caller’s location, determines the nature of the emergency, and decides which emergency response team to notify.

Under the traditional wireline or landline 911 service, the PSAP automatically receives the telephone number and the location of the call.  This capability, called Enhanced 911 or E911, allows PSAP staff to call a person back should the 911 call be disconnected and also alerts emergency personnel as to the location of the emergency.  This function has become more complicated as people increasingly move toward wireless service.

Wireless 911 Calls

The mobility of wireless service makes pinpointing a 911 caller’s location more difficult because, unlike a landline call, it is not associated with a fixed location or address.  To address this issue and, therefore, improve the ability of emergency personnel to respond, the FCC adopted rules to improve the accuracy of the location information transmitted with a wireless 911 call.

The FCC’s basic 911 rules require wireless service providers to transmit all 911 calls to a PSAP, regardless of whether the caller subscribes to the provider’s service.  The FCC’s Phase I E911 rules required wireless service providers to provide the PSAP with the telephone number of the 911 caller and the location of the cell site or base station transmitting the call.  Phase II now requires wireless service providers to provide the PSAPs with the latitude and the longitude of the caller within 50 to 300 meters, depending on the type of location technology used.  The providers will have the next few years to comply with this more stringent location requirement.

VoIP and 911

Technology has continued to evolve, so in addition to wireline and wireless services people have the option to use Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).  Interconnected VoIP service allows a person to make and receive calls from regular phone numbers using a broadband internet connection instead of a regular phone line.  So, like wireless service, emergency responders may have difficulty in determining the caller’s location.  Additionally, VoIP calls may not connect to the appropriate PSAP.

Since 2005, the FCC has required interconnected VoIP providers to automatically provide 911 service to its customers.  Before the provider may activate VoIP service, the provider must obtain the customer’s physical location where the service will first be used and provide customers with an easy means of updating the physical location they have registered with the provider. 

The FCC now also requires interconnected VoIP providers to transmit all 911 calls, as well as a callback number and the caller’s registered physical location, to the appropriate emergency services call center or local emergency authority.  They must also clearly advise customers of the availability and potential limitations of 911 service through VoIP.

California 911 Funding

The California Technology Agency (CTA) administers the state’s 911 system, reviewing the local PSAPs 911 equipment and operations and reimbursing the costs for planning, implementation, and maintenance of approved 911 systems.  A surcharge on telephone customer bills, including wireline, wireless, and VoIP services, pays for the 911 program costs.  The surcharge is capped by statute at three-quarters of 1% of charges for intrastate services [3] and is currently set at the statutory minimum of one-half of 1%.

The funding level within the State Emergency Telephone Number Account (SETNA) has been on a decline for several years and is projected to drop further during the 2013-14 fiscal year.  Reasons cited for the revenue decline include customers getting rid of wireline services, wireless service plans with multiple devices paying only one surcharge, and the increased use of prepaid wireless service where the surcharge payment is uncertain.  Additionally, there are new technologies, such as health monitoring devices that automatically call 911 for patients, but do not fall within the statutory framework requiring the remittance of the surcharge. 

The declining 911 revenues come at a time when substantial upgrades to the 911 system are going to be necessary.  While our communications technology has evolved a great deal over the last few years, the 911 system has not kept up.  Texting people and sharing data, images, and videos may be commonplace, but the 911 system is generally not capable of accommodating these communication modes.  There are also compatibility issues with receiving and processing information from automobile collision notification systems such as OnStar and text telephone devices (TTY) that assist the deaf and hard of hearing community.  Finally, our current system still has difficulty in pinpointing a caller’s location from a mobile device.

The Assembly has a bill pending which attempts to address the issue of surcharge collection and prepaid wireless service.  AB 300 (Perea) would establish a uniform, statewide retail point-of-sale collection mechanism for prepaid wireless services.  The surcharge on prepaid wireless service, based on a percentage of the sales price for each prepaid wireless service, would include the 911 user surcharge, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) surcharges, and any applicable local user utility tax.  The retailer would be required to collect the funds and remit them to the Board of Equalization (BOE).  AB 300 passed the Assembly with an urgency clause and is currently in the Senate Rules Committee awaiting referral to policy committee.

Next Generation 911

The federal government and many states are slowly moving toward a digital, Internet protocol (IP)-based infrastructure – Next Generation 911 (Next Gen 911 or NG9-1-1).  Implementing Next Gen 911 will require substantial funding for PSAP upgrades and developing increased coordination and partnerships among government and public safety stakeholders, service and equipment providers, and PSAPs.  Next Gen 911 is envisioned as an interconnected system of local and regional emergency services networks, which can accommodate emergency calls from a range of technologies commonly used today.

California currently has five NG9-1-1 pilot projects underway.  Each of the projects utilizes an IP-based network solution, which theoretically will allow for multi-media and other emerging technology capabilities.

In the first major transition to Next Gen 911, the FCC proposed rules in December 2012 to bring the public the ability to send text messages to 911 and inform the public of the availability and appropriate use of texting 911.  The major wireless carriers – AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile – made a voluntary commitment with the FCC to make text to 911 available to customers by May 15, 2014.  While carriers may be able to offer the service by May 15, 2014, it does not guarantee texting to 911 will be available.  The PSAPS must be authorized to receive the text messages and, more importantly, they must be “technically ready” to receive the text messages.  At this time it is unknown when the PSAPs will be authorized to upgrade and receive text messages.

While the carriers are upgrading their systems and the PSAPs wait for upgrades, the FCC is requiring all wireless carriers to send automated “bounce back” error messages to consumers trying to text 911 in areas where the service is not available.  The error message would indicate the text message did not reach 911 and the consumer must place a voice call to 911.  The four largest wireless carriers have committed to providing the automatic “bounce back” message by June 20, 2013.


Despite the vast improvements in technology and the provision of emergency services, the current 911 system has not kept up.  Common forms of communication are not compatible and may leave many, although unknowingly, without 911 access.  The question now is how do we develop and pay for a system that can accommodate our communications technology and ensure adequate access to emergency services before it evolves again?

For more information on this report or other Energy, Utilities, & Communications issues, contact Kerry Yoshida, Senate Republican Office of Policy at 916/651-1501.

[1] 47 USC §§615 et seq.
[2] Gov. Code §§53100 et seq.
[3] Rev. and Tax. Code §41030.