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Superstorm Could Crash 911

NJ Counties NG-911 Ready, but State Diverts Money for Completing Upgrade

New Jersey’s failure to spend money tagged for 911 to upgrade an aging backbone network is delaying potentially life-saving next-generation features, local government officials said in interviews. Some counties years ago upgraded local systems and equipment to be NG-911 capable. They can’t use them to their full potential until the state modernizes its network integrating local public safety answering points (PSAPs). New Jersey probably would have enough money for upgrades if it stopped moving 911 fee revenue, they said.

It diverted $94.2 million, or 77.3 percent, of 911 fee revenue in 2017, the FCC reported in December (see 1812190059). Only New York diverted more. The practice’s “most immediate effect is slower progress making technological advancements,” said National Association of State 911 Administrators Executive Director Evelyn Bailey. A secondary impact is making it harder to maintain or update equipment at 911 centers where budgets are often tight, Bailey said.

Cumberland County upgraded its end-user equipment to support NG-911 about two years ago using its own money, but New Jersey’s more than 20-year-old back-end system “is some of the oldest technology in the country,” said Edward Conrow, who when interviewed was director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management and now is Brunswick County Emergency Services director in North Carolina. The newer local equipment improved reliability, but the system would be better if the state upgraded, he said. “We can update it as much as we want” locally, “but if we’re not updating everything, what are we really getting?”

"What good is … putting all this money into our system if [the state] system can't support it?" asked Camden County Freeholder Jonathan Young (D). The county has a $16 million budget for its PSAP, he said: “We’re ready.” Camden bought an NG-911 capable system in 2011 and upgraded it earlier this year, “but yet we can’t use it to its full capabilities because the state doesn’t have a next-generation backbone,” said Rob Blaker, the county’s public safety director: If money weren’t diverted, “absolutely, it would be done.”

Monmouth County built a “state-of-the-art” 911 center about four years ago that would support NG-911, but it’s not being used to its full potential because the state system runs on copper T1 lines and “the same 9600 baud modems that probably ran back in 1978,” said Sheriff Shaun Golden. Monmouth turned to “off-grid” systems to enable text-to-911 and location capabilities to use in the interim, he said.

Atlantic County residents pay for 911 maintenance and staff training through local taxes even though they also pay a state 911 fee because localities don’t receive any of that money, said Vincent Jones, Atlantic County Office of Emergency Management Public Safety Department director. Most local PSAPs upgraded computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and records management systems using local taxes, Jones said. Municipal PSAP equipment might be NG-911 capable, he said. “But the system they’re connected to is not.”

Fearing Disaster

Conrow has seen crashing servers, system slowdowns and difficulties sharing information in Cumberland. The county usually finds ways to “fill the gap,” but if there's another major disaster like Superstorm Sandy, the system might crash, he said. It’s not just 911 that needs money, he said: “It’s our computer and dispatch -- our radio system is failing.”

The state 911 system is well-maintained, but it’s “an aging system and spare parts … are limited or nonexistent,” said Jones. Emergency 911 is critical in Atlantic County, which regularly faces coastal storms and flooding, he said. Jones shares concerns that another big disaster like Sandy could crash the system. It’s like an “old car,” he said. “You’re … sinking a lot of money into it to keep it running,” but “eventually, it’s going to die.”

Young saw the 911 system partly go down “quite a few times” in about 10 years, with regional connection stations usually to blame. Upgrading the state network to NG-911 would increase network reliability compared with “way outdated” copper lines, plus add important features including GPS location tracking and photo and video transfers, Young said. “If we can shave seconds of any call … it saves a life.”

Jersey Shore tourism is a big reason to pursue NG-911, with automatic geolocation a key feature, Golden said. Monmouth County has 27 miles of coastline and 22 vacation towns, he said, and it gets “hundreds of thousands of visitors” every summer who often don’t know their exact location when calling 911, particularly when out in the ocean, bay or along a river.

Upgrading the state to NG-911 would speed call processing and enhance dispatching of first responders, Jones said. “It’s having the ability to not only quickly dispatch them but also provide timely information to the units in the field prior to them even getting there,” the Atlantic County official said. “Right now, we have to rely on third-party or second-hand information from the caller.”

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Unshared Funding

Despite efforts by FCC commissioners, county and wireless industry officials to end New Jersey 911 fee diversion, the state is expected to again divert about 89 percent of the $120 million in 911 surcharges it expects to collect this year, said New Jersey Association of Counties Executive Director John Donnadio. The state collected about $1.4 billion since 2006 but spent only 11 percent on eligible expenses for three state-operated 911 centers, and nothing on county or municipal PSAPs, he said.

Ending state diversion would provide “plenty of money” to upgrade to NG-911, said Golden. Use some for NG-911 and send some to counties for maintenance and operational costs, so they don’t have to tax residents as much, said Jones. Camden “could use that extra funding to make sure that our training, our security and that our overall system itself stays up and is sustainable,” said Young. Sharing state 911 revenue with counties would help increase reliability of emergency response, especially for poorer counties in south New Jersey like Cumberland where local taxpayer funding is limited, said Conrow. “You can only raise taxes so much,” but if the state were to stop diversion, “we would be in a pretty good place,” he said.

Also, the state could reduce costs and more easily standardize systems by regionalizing 911 response, Golden said. It might be able to reduce the number of PSAPs to 21, one per county, from 192 today, “way too many to maintain,” he said.

Having 11 PSAPs in Atlantic County rather than one communications center delays response and means higher costs, Jones said. “If we have a large-scale event, I may have to make upwards of 11 phone calls to get the necessary resources,” he said: Even a 10-minute delay can risk lives.

Atlantic County tried to consolidate its PSAPs a few years ago, but high cost kept the project from moving forward, Jones said. “There’s a strong push from the state of New Jersey for consolidation, but there’s nothing there to entice these towns to consolidate.” Giving localities part of the state 911 fee revenue would help offset costs, he said.

‘Wall of Shame’

FCC Commissioner Mike O'Rielly finds it “shameful and distressing that New Jersey’s state leadership puts the public safety of citizens at a heightened risk because of its habitual 9-1-1 fee diversion practice." From preventing its emergency call center system from being fully NG-911 capable "to failing to upgrade an aging network backbone, there are critical projects in New Jersey for which consumer-collected funding is available, but it’s being squandered or misspent on other unrelated matters," said his statement for this Special Report. "New Jersey state politicians should know that I haven’t forgotten about their reprehensible behavior and plan to intensify my efforts until the situation is completely rectified. I pray no one is seriously harmed in the meantime."

"We need to end 911 fee diversion," said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement. "It is a fraud on American consumers and it shortchanges public safety." She'll continue to flag the problem "because in New Jersey and so many other states funding needs are substantial, especially with the upcoming transition" to NG-911: "Public safety is at stake."

Chairman Ajit Pai "considers 911 fee diversion to be outrageous and unacceptable," a spokesperson emailed this week. "He is ready and willing to work with Congress and other stakeholders to combat this issue and ensure that 911 fees are used for their intended purpose -- to strengthen public safety communications. He also appreciates Commissioner O’Rielly’s dedicated efforts to shine a light on this issue."

The focus by O’Rielly and others on governors and legislatures responsible for 911 fee diversion is helping to build a “wall of shame,” said NASNA’s Bailey. O’Rielly on April 5 urged Murphy and two other governors to end diversion (see 1904090047). The practice “shortchanges the budgets of emergency call centers and has prevented systems from being upgraded,” he wrote.

It’s more important than ever for states to move to NG-911, but funding is only “part of the equation,” said National Emergency Number Association CEO Brian Fontes. “There has to be a plan to use that money and to use that money wisely.” Even if a state like New Jersey reallocates enough money for NG-911, it must also ensure there’s funding to operate the legacy system and provide adequate staffing, he said.

Diversion has “gone on for so long, and it’s been brought to the state’s attention more times than I care to discuss,” said Atlantic County’s Jones. Ending diversion is tough because it’s millions of dollars being used to fund other parts of government, he said. “Everyone’s aware of what’s occurring but nobody wants to take that step.”