Report on outdated 911 systems spurs Congress to act

Calls still travel through very old infrastructure

A growing cyber threat from a dangerously outdated 911 systems has led to a bipartisan push to combat what three key House members say is a public safety crisis. 

This week, Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Michael Doyle, D-Pa., cited a Scripps News investigation in a letter to the House Energy and Commerce Committee requesting a hearing.

“We are concerned by the state of our nation’s outdated 911 emergency infrastructure,” the pair wrote to the committee.

“We cannot afford to have these disrupters hacking into our 911 systems in our country,” said Eshoo, whose district covers parts of Silicon Valley, in an interview with Scripps. “It’s a matter of life or death, and they can hasten death by their hacking."

The Scripps News investigation reported that calls to 911 centers still travel through decades-old infrastructure that, according to cyber-experts, is vulnerable to attacks. It also reported that 911 fees that could help pay for upgrading the systems have been used by some states for non-911 purposes.

“By continuing to divert funds designated for public safety, states risk putting American lives in jeopardy,” said Rep. John Shimkus, an Illinois Republican who along with Eshoo serves as a co-chair on the Congressional Next Gen 911 Caucus. The caucus is made up of 78 members of the House and Senate who have joined to promote a more dependable 911 network.  

A Scripps analysis of Federal Communications Commission records found states have diverted more than $1 billion from 2008-2015. While some are repeat offenders, records show at least two dozen states have diverted money during at least one calendar year.

“Sadly, this dishonest activity goes largely undetected by the public,” Shimkus said.

The longtime, senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee said his own congressional district in rural Illinois has suffered from 911 fee diversion and is still struggling to provide even basic 911 communications capabilities.

FCC reports show from 2009-2015, Illinois collected $659 million in 911 fees from consumers and diverted $93 million for other purposes. The state did not provide detailed information to the FCC in 2008, the first year the federal commission collected information, but Illinois did acknowledge some funds were diverted to its general fund that year.

The problem has largely languished for years as an open secret in the halls of Congress, Eshoo said.  She and other members of Congress, such as Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., have raised the issue of diversion before.  Eshoo said, “It was easy for members to say: ‘Oh, I’m not gonna bother with that. I have other fish to fry. Why upset my governor?’”    

She believes that increasingly sophisticated cyber attacks around the globe and against 911 systems in America could prove to be a tipping point.

An attack last October in Arizona is an example of the threat. Police say Meetkumar Desai, 19, released malicious code through a link he tweeted that, once clicked, corrupted the user’s cell phone “causing the device to call 911 more than a dozen times in just a few seconds.”  Within a few hours, emergency officials from as far away as California and Texas were flooded with phantom or “ghost calls.”

The federal government has little direct authority over how local and state governments collect or spend 911 fees. Eshoo said in the future, non-diverting states could be rewarded with additional federal dollars and is hopeful renewed attention from the media will now spur a wider and more serious conversation among her colleagues.

“I think it’s going to hasten a positive outcome so we get done what we know we need to do,” she said. “There really has not been a national call, from the Congress, to states not to do this.”

In their letter, Eshoo and Doyle said that by early 2018 the federal government is expected to begin awarding state and local governments matching grants to transition their 911 emergency systems to next generation systems.   They add that a hearing is needed to address cyber threats that go beyond what was covered in a March subcommittee hearing on Next Gen 911.

“The woefully-inadequate state of our nation's current 9-1-1 infrastructure as documented in the Scripps News report, and the upcoming completion of important milestones required by the Next Generation 911 Advancement Act of 2012, warrants further examination of this critical issue," they said. 

The letter asked for a timely response to their request for a hearing and “further examination of this critical issue” from Rep. Greg Walden R-Ore., who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Blackburn, a subcommittee chair on Communications and Technology. 

Last June, Eshoo and Rep. Norma Torres, a Democrat from California who is also a former 911 dispatcher, asked the Government Accountability Office to tell members of Congress what it believes the impact of state diversion of 911 fees has had on local governments’ ability to upgrade their public safety infrastructure. Eshoo expects to receive the findings from the non-partisan office by the end of this year. 

A spokesperson for Shimkus said the congressman has already asked his Republican colleagues to address the issues with 911 in future hearings. 

Shimkus said Congress is not the only entity that can or should act. 

“The reality is that public awareness, and public pressure on state legislators is more likely the quickest, most effective way to address 9-1-1 fee diversions in the short term,” he said.

Mark Greenblatt is Scripps News senior national investigative correspondent. Email him at mark.greenblatt@scripps.com and follow him on Twitter at @greenblattmark. He recently led a three-month investigation titled 911: A State of Emergency.

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