New Castle News


June 25, 2014

Our Opinion: Lawmakers struggle to revamp 911 service

NEW CASTLE — In the last 20 years telecommunications technology has changed dramatically.

No surprise there. And perhaps there’s no surprise that the last time Pennsylvania updated its laws pertaining to 911 emergency communications and billing to fund it was 1996.

The Pennsylvania Legislature isn’t known for its proactive leadership on such matters. It’s why assorted issues seem to linger in Harrisburg indefinitely without resolution.

Lawmakers have been working on revisions to the rules of the system, but progress is slow. It is so slow that emergency legislation is needed to continue with current rules, because the fees to fund 911 are scheduled to expire at the end of this month.

A measure is planned to extend the fees for an additional year, to give lawmakers the time to revise the 911 program. But it’s not clear if that will be enough time, considering Harrisburg has failed to act so far.

With 911, different interests weigh in with their concerns. These range from local governments to emergency responders to telecommunications providers. Obviously, they want a law that works for them, and sometimes their interests conflict.

These, combined with the fact lawmakers say they want to plan as well as they can for the future, are key reasons for the delay in crafting a new 911 law.

But the way we see it, Harrisburg shouldn’t be in the future prediction business. In 1996, most people were contacting 911 with land lines provided by traditional phone companies. Today, people have cellphones, cable telecommunications and employ various devices that weren’t on the horizon.

It’s a communications revolution, and government is struggling to keep up. Not the least of the concerns involves how to cover the costs of 911 with new demands and a declining number of land lines to charge for it. That’s because land lines are a major source of tax revenue to support 911.

Today, someone using a wireless device can contact emergency personnel for help without using a connection of their own. The landscape of communications has changed and will no doubt continue to change.

As we see it, covering costs is a major concern. Government has the ability to levy appropriate fees on agencies that provide various telecommunications services.

But 911 needs to be able to adapt as well. Twenty years ago, texting an emergency message wasn’t feasible. Today, it’s the preferred means of communication for many people.

With Google Glass and other devices in the offing, the shape of telecommunications is continuing to evolve, and 911 must have flexibility to be able to deal with it.

That means the Legislature need not be specific with its changes, but instead allow latitude. Legislators shouldn’t worry about predicting the future.

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