WASHINGTON, D.C. – The director of the St. Francois County Joint Communications Center was among representatives of National Emergency Numbers Association who took 911 issues to Congress and a number of federal agencies here last week.
Alan Wells represented Missouri at the first meeting of the Congressional E9-1-1 Caucus formed “to provide a consensus-building forum to elevate issues surrounding 911 services and implement an agenda that strengthens our country’s ability to better respond and communicate in times of local and national emergencies.”
Spearheading the caucus are Sens. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and John Shimkus (R-Ill.) They are recruiting other members of Congress to participate in the caucus and many lawmakers attended the first session.
“In the past few years we have seen the critical need for improving safety in our country,” Burns said. “Implementation of a seamless and effective wireless emergency communications network is imperative for getting our country where it needs to be. Both big cities and small communities must be on the same playing field and we must make sure first responders in all communities have the ability to communicate in real time, and get where they need to be during an emergency.”
One of the revelations coming out of the 9-11 tragedy in New York City, Wells said, was that land-line telephones, wireless telephones and even two-way radios failed to meet the needs of emergency responders. Sadly enough, it appears the lives of many firefighters and police officers were lost because communications systems were inadequate.
Those communications services were not only disrupted by the tragic events, Wells said, but also overloaded. There was no way they could handle the gigantic task after the attack on the World Trade Center.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has brought a new awareness of the nation’s vulnerability, Wells pointed out. While in the nation’s capital, the 911 directors also met with representatives of a number of federal agencies.
Representatives of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) told the directors the 9-11 events has caused them to change their focus dramatically. Until that fateful day, NORAD had been concerned about attacks coming from across the nation’s borders but now it has refocused on attacks from within.
With that change in focus, NORAD is now seeing the need to bring local communities into its defense preparations. This means local communications centers, law enforcement, fire and ambulance first responders.
The U.S. Department of Justice stressed to the 911 directors the importance of local agencies in the fight against terrorism, while another panel of federal officials and private sector leaders discussed heightened security for all facilities from the smallest community to the largest federal agencies. The directors also got firsthand tips from members of Congress on how to work with their legislators.
Meeting with representatives of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 911 directors emphasized the need to adequately fund emergency communications and promote availability of new technology to all centers.
A key issue is seeing that all communications centers have the capability to access the telephone number and location from which wireless telephone calls are received. Some centers do not even have the capability of receiving 911 calls from cellular telephones, and most that do cannot access critical information.
Wells said implementing such technology, which is available, is hampered by a lack of funding in some areas such as Missouri. Here, all 911 funding comes from surcharges on land-line telephones. There is no service charge for cellular telephones.
Only three cities in Missouri have the systems that identify call back numbers from cellular telephones. None have the ability to trace the location of the call’s origination through GPS or cross-triangulation of cellular towers.
Many critical issues were covered during the NENA representative’s three-day stay in Washington, but Wells said only the groundwork was laid toward dealing with the concerns. While many of them fall within the scope of Homeland Security, there are other issues related more precisely to everyday operations at centers such as the one in St. Francois County.
Wells is chairman of NENA’s Contingency Planning Committee and a member of the operational team. In that capacity, he deals with matters affecting large and small communities across the nation.
After the three-day session in Washington, Wells returned and is preparing for another round of discussions next week in Jefferson City.