Funding 9-1-1 Emergency Communication

By Kathryn Hohman, NYSAC Program Specialist
In 1968, the United States designated 9-1-1 as the universal telephone number for emergency assistance. At that time, cell phones, fiber optics, and global positioning systems (GPS) were purely science fiction. In New York State, our 9-1-1 systems have evolved with technology in order to continue dispatching emergency response services to citizens across the state. The administration and costs of the 9-1-1 program have evolved as well, from an initial function of the State Police, to being a county-operated, and funded, responsibility.

Counties control Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs), which are network operating centers where 9-1-1 calls are taken and emergency personnel are dispatched. From a PSAP, dispatchers for local police stations, sheriff's road patrol, EMS, State Troopers, Park Police and other agencies are directed to the location of the call, depending on the nature of the emergency.

Under current law, the state imposes a $1.20 Public Safety Surcharge in all contracted wireless cell phones in order to fund 9-1-1 operations. Under section 186-F of the Tax Law, $.50 goes into the State's General Fund and the remaining $.70 goes to a variety of public safety programs. In 2015, the state collected $185 million and provided only $75 million in grants to selected counties for 9-1-1 equipment.

To ensure that counties have dedicated 9-1-1 funding, counties have implemented a $.30 local public safety surcharge on contracted wireless cell phone devices. This local authority is permitted only with State Legislative approval. As of September 2014, all but eight counties have the authority to charge this local surcharge of at least $.30 per contracted wireless device for emergency 9-1-1 services. This inequity prevents the remaining eight counties (Hamilton, Jefferson, Lewis, Niagara, Oneida, Oswego, Schoharie, and St. Lawrence) from implementing this dedicated surcharge.

Counties are also authorized the imposition of a $.35 charge per access line per month on landline phones. The authority for this surcharge was established in the County Law § 308. This surcharge is imposed at local option. 

Costs Grow 
The current hardware and software in many local 9-1-1 systems are reaching the end of their useful life and must be upgraded and/or replaced. In addition, federal standards require states to build Next Generation 9-1-1 systems that have the capability to receive information from a variety of electronic devices in various forms, including text messages and images. The cost of fully transitioning to Next Generation 9-1-1 could easily exceed $10 billion over the coming years, and the current revenue is not adequate for making these upgrades.

In 2010, to assist with the cost of 9-1-1 dispatch, New York State provided grants to counties. The New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services (DHSES), through its Office of Interoperable and Emergency Communications (OIEC), coordinated a grant program to facilitate the developments, consolidation and/or operation of public safety communications and networks designed to support statewide interoperable communications for first responders.

Grants included:

 The Statewide Interoperable Communications Grant (SICG) is a competitive grant funded by cellular surcharge revenue.
• 2010-2011 Round 1 SICG - Total Amount Awarded: $20,000,000
• 2011-2012 Round 2 SICG - Total Amount Awarded: $102,000,000
• 2012-2013 Round 3 SICG - Total Amount Awarded: $75,000,000
• 2014-15 Round 4 SICG - Total Amount Awarded: $50,000,000

 Public Safety Answering Point Grant, intended to reimburse counties for costs associated with Public Safety Answering Points (PSAP) operations, consolidation, and improvements.
• 2012 PSAP Grant - Total Amount Awarded: $9,000,000
• 2013-14 PSAP Grant - Total Amount Awarded: $9,000,000
• 2014-15 PSAP Grant - Total Amount Awarded: $10,000,000
• 2015-16 PSAP Grant - Total Amount Awarded: $10,000,000

A key problem with the current surcharge is that prepaid cellular and other connected devices do not pay the Public Safety Surcharge. NYSAC estimates that more than 30 percent of the market is prepaid and other connected devices based on data reported to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This results in an unfair application of the surcharge on a large segment of cellular users.

NYSAC estimates that more than $100 million annually is not being collected because prepaid devices are not contributing any surcharge revenues. Thirty-eight states have 9-1-1 surcharges for both prepaid and postpaid cellular devices and many of them have modernized their surcharge systems in the last decade to catch up with the market and new technology (Pennsylvania being the most recent example). Most states use a set dollar amount at the point of sale for collection of the surcharge on prepaid devices (some use a percentage of total sale, also collected at the point of sale).

Looking ahead to the future of 9-1-1, the following policy considerations should be made:
 Expand the surcharge to all devices capable of connecting to 9-1-1. Since inception of the 9-1-1 surcharge, the cell phone market has expanded and changed from annual contracts to pre-paid plans. The Public Safety Surcharge can be lowered from $1.20 to $1.00 when applied to all devices capable of connecting to the 9-1-1 system. The language should also extend current local surcharge authority to prepaid devices.

 All counties should have the same authority to charge a local public safety surcharge. The $.30 local surcharge on annual cell phone contracts and the $.35 surcharge on landline phones are the only funding streams that go directly to financing 9-1-1 centers in New York State.

 Expand counties' access to 9-1-1 surcharge revenues. Counties should be able to access funding collected by the State's Public Safety Surcharge to pay for operating expenses, debt, and other 9-1-1 center associated costs.