Officials from New Jersey and Maryland scheduled to testify today at a House communications and technology subcommittee hearing threw their support behind pending public safety legislation, according to their prepared testimony.
Though the hearing had been scheduled to take place today, it was postponed to a yet-to-be-determined date due to changes in the House calendar. However, witnesses’ written testimony was made available by the subcommittee.
The hearing was slated to include discussion about three bills. One of the bills would prevent states from diverting 911 fees to other purposes, while a second would increase criminal penalties against people who intentionally transmit false or misleading caller ID information–a practice known as “swatting”–to initiate emergency responses from law enforcement and first responders when there is no threat to life, health, or property.
Finally, the National Non-Emergency Mobile Number Act would direct the FCC to take steps to facilitate the creation of a unified wireless short code for critical, but non-emergency, situations on highways.
Detailing a pair of swatting incidents in other states, one of which resulted in a person being killed and another that led to a high school being evacuated, Montgomery County, Md., Police Department Public Information Office Director Paul Starks urged lawmakers in his written testimony to pass the anti-swatting legislation.
“I believe this bill is necessary to augment state and local efforts with federal resources to investigate swatting events and in the end individual(s) who initiate these calls will be more easily held responsible by employing appropriate fines, incarceration, and specific cost recovery from suspects for expenses incurred during the response and investigation,” he said.
Among many issues, Mr. Starks noted swatting incidents divert attention and resources away from actual emergencies.
“Should there be an actual need in the same geographical area, help must come from farther away, making someone experiencing a medical emergency or a crime victim wait unnecessarily for potentially life-saving resources,” he said. “Furthermore, depending on the details of the swatting call, tactical team members, negotiators, and specialty fire and rescue personnel and their equipment are often dispatched to these scenes. When first responders arrive and attempt to contact potential victims and suspects at what is believed to be an active and volatile scene, it becomes potentially dangerous for all parties.”
The anti-swatting legislation, introduced by Rep. Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.) in June, would impose fines or jail sentences of up to five years on people convicted in swatting incidents that did not result in a loss of life. In cases where a life is lost, the prison sentence would rise to a maximum of 20 years.
In addition, the bill would require anyone convicted of swatting to reimburse any emergency response agency for costs incurred from responding to the false call.
In his prepared testimony, New Jersey Department of Public Safety Communications Division head James Curry advocated for passage of the bill that would give the FCC six months to craft rules prohibiting 911 surcharges from being diverted to other purposes.
Mr. Curry is the head of the Hunterdon County Communications Center, which he said is the first county-wide 911 system in New Jersey and is responsible for handling 911 communications and dispatches for 60 public safety organizations. “[I]n my state when you pay certain fees on your phone bills called 9-1-1 fees[SL1] — it doesn’t finance what one might expect,” he said.
Citing information from the New Jersey Association of Counties and New Jersey Wireless Association, Mr. Curry said the state collects about $120 million annually from 911 surcharges. But, he added, since 2006 only about 11 percent of the $1.3 billion collected has been spent on eligible expenses, and none of it for local 911 services.
A $600,000 update of the county’s 911 phone system last year was paid for using capital improvement funds, not 911 surcharge funds, he noted. “[T]axpayers may have thought they subsidized it when they paid their phone bill, but actually–they paid for it twice,” in the form of their 911 surcharges as well as other taxpayer funds directed to capital improvements, he said.
The bill would direct the FCC to issue rules designating acceptable uses of 911 fees collected from wireless, wireline, and interconnected VoIP subscribers. —Jeff Williams