Amid devastating wildfires lashing the state, Gov. Jerry Brown is urging the Legislature to approve new fees to update California’s aging 911 emergency-services system.
The administration plans to modify an existing tax on phone calls to include a flat fee — estimated initially at 34 cents per line — on cellphones, landlines and other devices capable of contacting 911. More than $175 million is expected to generate from this in the first year, with the possibility of growing to $400 million in later years.
In 2017, about 77,000 calls were made to 911 per day in California. In 2010, there were about 55,000 calls per day.
Brian Ferguson, deputy press secretary for Gov. Brown, said the proposal — part of Senate Bill 870 and Assembly Bill 1836 — is “about saving lives,” describing the affects of a next generation 911 system.
Brown’s plan, which requires a two-thirds vote by the Legislature, is awaiting action in both houses. The Legislature adjourns Aug. 31.
California’s existing system, known as the State Emergency Telephone Number Account, was built in the late 1960s. Due to changes in technology, particularly the increased use of data compared to voice communication, the current system is no longer sufficient, Ferguson said.
“As experienced in the recent wildfire disasters and the Oroville evacuation, dispatch centers were unable to receive 911 calls due to fire damaged infrastructure, or 911 calls were not answered because the dispatch centers were evacuated,” he said.
Even on days when there are no natural disasters, the state is flooded with 911 calls. In 2017, about 77,000 calls were made to 911 per day in California. In 2010, there were about 55,000 calls per day.
Earlier this year, AT&T launched a wireless network to “save lives and protect communities,” reported the First Responder Network Authority, a government office within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
NG911 would allow for voice, photos, videos and text messages to “flow seamlessly from the public,” according to NTIA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Through special SIM cards inserted in their phones, police, fire and medical personnel are now better able to communicate with each other. Since calls clogged phone lines after the terrorist attacks in 2001 and many first responders were not able to contact each other, the idea of an updated wireless network began. Under the contract, AT&T will continue to spend about $40 billion to fully deploy the existing systems.
The state Office of Emergency Services said the newer system, known as Next Generation 911, could be fully operational within five years.
NG911 would allow for voice, photos, videos and text messages to “flow seamlessly from the public,” according to NTIA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Calls could also be transferred to other call centers in the event of call overloads, disasters, or day-to-day transfers to other jurisdictions.
Patrick Mallon, an assistant director at OES, said this would allow for a more timely approach to emergencies.
“If you report a child missing, you would be able to send a photo to the dispatch center,” Mallon said, explaining that an officer would already have the photo as they arrive on scene.
“There are 441 emergency call centers in the state, and 200 of them accept text,” said Paul Troxel, OES division chief for the 911 program.
“As we have seen with the unprecedented 2017 wildfires, first responders tackle significant challenges every day. California has asked for and deserves a dedicated communications network to help first responders save lives,” said Ken McNeely, president of AT&T’s Pacific Region.