More than 200 million calls are made to 911 each year, according to the FCC. Fees to support states’ 911 call centers appear on wireless, wireline and other communication services bills. But some states use their 911 fees for other purposes. That deprives those call centers’ needed funding to operate efficiently and to implement upgrades, according to Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau Chief Lisa Fowlkes, who spoke during Wednesday’s FCC meeting.
The agency calls that “911 fee diversion” and it wants to eliminate this practice. “It is fitting that my first vote as FCC Acting Chairwoman is to protect and strengthen 911,” said Jessica Rosenworcel. “You may only call 911 once in your life, but it will be the most important call you ever make.” She said: “We are unlikely to see upgrades” at 911 call centers “if all parts of the U.S.” don’t stop diverting the money.
Commissioner Brendan Carr recognized former Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who worked for years to eliminate 911 fee diversion. The 4-0 vote, Carr said, “is a good standard to set.” He called it the “first vote in a bi-partisan FCC meeting,” referring to the current four-commissioner configuration, with political parties evenly split; normally, the party in presidential power has a five-member majority.
The Don’t Break Up the T-Band Act of 2020, enacted last December, directs the Commission to adopt rules that define such fee diversion for states and jurisdictions. In a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the agency seeks comment on proposals to implement these provisions in the new legislation. In addition to defining 911 fee diversion, the proposed rules would allow states and jurisdictions to petition the Commission for a decision that a 911 fee expenditure not previously allowed could be treated as acceptable.
The new legislation also directs the Commission to establish a federal advisory committee to study 911 fee diversion and develop recommendations to Congress to end this practice. The agency is looking for nominations for membership on this committee, called the “Ending 911 Fee Diversion Now Strike Force” or 911 Strike Force.
According to Congress, the “Strike Force” needs to be composed of representatives from federal departments and agencies the Commission deems appropriate. In addition, state attorneys general, state 911 administrators, and representatives from public safety organizations, groups representing 911 call center employees, states or taxing jurisdictions not diverting the fees and those trying to stop the practice are eligible.The FCC intends to establish the strike force by April and hold the first meeting in May. Nominations for membership to the 911 Strike Force should be submitted to the FCC no later than today, March 19, by email to: [email protected].
By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief