Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Emergencey Regarding Emergency Services

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According to David Rosen and Brice Kushnick, "Republican and Democratic governors and legislatures across the country are
plundering state coffers for cash to fill gaping budgetary shortfalls. Raiding 911 monies is an easy way to scoop up loose cash, far easier then taxing the rich."

The Great Blizzard of 2010
The Great Blizzard of 2010 dumped record levels of snow throughout the Northeast. On day one of the snowstorm, New York's 911 service got nearly 50,000 calls and, at its peak, had a backlog of 1,300 calls that almost brought the service to its knees. Sadly, the combination of 911 failures and the inability of EMS ambulances to get through the snowdrifts likely contributed to a number of needless deaths.

Many elected officials, most especially New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, were put on the proverbial hot seat over their failure to meet unprecedented volumes of emergency calls. After an initial phase of finger pointing and mea culpas, politicians made their customary promises to make sure such a crisis would not happen again. Fortunately, while this was a record year for snowstorms, none was as devastating as the initial December 2010 blizzard.
Raiding 911 monies
More troubling for long-term civil society, none of these officials, let alone the less-then-attentive commercial news media, identified the deeper problems besetting 911 services. Hundreds of millions of dollars are collected annually by states and localities to support 911 services and much of it is diverted to plug state budget holes and meet a host of other demands. Most disturbing, 911 services are technologically bankrupt, held together by duct-tape and workarounds.

911 monies are a direct surcharge on customer phone bills, whether landline, wireless and Internet service. Though it varies by the state, this charge adds $0.25 to $1.50 a month to phone bills per line, with only a few states not having a separate 911 charge. Worse, in most states, 911 services are not put up for bid, so the existing phone companies get the lion's share of monies paid for 911 services.
Antiquated 911 services
In 2010, the Congressional Research Office (CRO) released a devastating report, "Emergency Communications: The Future of 911." Its opening sentences point to the underlying crisis besetting the nation's emergency service system:

Today's 911 system is built on an infrastructure of analog technology that does not support many of the features that most Americans expect to be part of an emergency response. Efforts to splice newer, digital technologies onto this aging infrastructure have created points of failure where a call can be dropped or misdirected, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Not mincing its words, CRO adds: "Systems for 911, unable to accommodate the latest advances in telecommunications technology, are increasingly out-dated, costly to maintain, and in danger of failure."

America's antiquated 911 services are unlikely to see improvement in the near term. With states across the country facing dire financial crises, monies are being diverted from every income source in an attempt to balance budgets without raising taxes, especially the taxes of the rich and super-rich.
Raiding State Coffers
The raiding of 911 monies parallels the equally scandalous ripoff of state lottery monies. New York State, for example, got into this traditional organized crime racket in the early 1960s and, to get the necessary legislation passed, promised the public that lottery monies would go to education. The flimflam men who run state governments played the old substitution con on the citizenry: previously allocated funding to education was replaced by, but did not supplement, lottery monies. Writing in 1998, then-state controller H. Carl McCall was honest enough to admit to the scam:

[A] new lottery advertising campaign perpetuates the myth that schools receive additional resources from the lottery. The truth is that the Legislature and Governor decide how much state aid will go to local schools and the amount from the lottery is just a small part of that total. Lottery money has never supplemented state aid; it doesn't today and it likely never will.

Sadly, few have fessed up to how the states' raiding of 911 monies has hobbled the nation's emergency services.
Congressional Attempt to Stop the Raiding
The federal government has long attempted to stop states' from raiding their 911 cookie jars. In 1999, Congress passed "The Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act" (known as E911) that directed the FCC to "encourage and support efforts by states to deploy comprehensive end-to-end emergency communications infrastructure and programs." It proved less then effective.

In the wake of September 11th, Congress passed "the 2004 ENHANCE 911 Act" that offered federal grants to encourage states to allocate 911 collected fees to 911-related expenditures. Unfortunately, under the Republican-controlled Congress, the Act was not funded.

In 2008, Congress passed "The New and Emerging Technologies 911 Improvement Act," requiring the FCC to conduct an annual audit of state 911 services. The FCC's 2009 report is an eyeopener. States collect 911 monies from three principals sources: 1) from legacy wireline telephone services; 2) from surcharges on wireless calls (in 47 states); and 3) Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) surcharges (in 15 states).

States allocated these monies in different ways, some on a state basis, others through county or locality allocations, and others still through a hybrid method. According to the FCC, most states use 911 fees to fund 911 and "related" services. They are distributed to 911 call centers to provide both landline and wireless services throughout a given state based on proportion of total population, and to meet the state agency's operating costs. Often gone unmentioned, phone company service providers siphon off a chunk of the money for administrating the service.

A recent 911 Association study reveals different schemes employed by states to fudge their 911 books. One involves simply diverting funds to meet other obligations, most often to make up shortfalls in a state's general fund; between 2001 and 2004 such diversions totaled more than $400 million. Another simply redefines 911 services so as to use monies from 911 and EMS to fund, for example, courthouse pay raises.
The Answer
Politicians need to be held accountable for the ripoff of the nation's 911 services; otherwise, when the next public emergency arises (dare we say a September 11th-type attack) or citizens face serious troubles, calls for help will go unanswered.
Read the complete article here.

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