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Legislative committee considers bills to boost Nebraska’s 911 system, add transparency

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Legislative committee considers bills to boost Nebraska’s 911 system, add transparency

Feb 20, 2024 | 9:06 pm ET
By Zach Wendling
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Legislative committee considers bills to boost Nebraska’s 911 system, add transparency
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LINCOLN — During one of the worst emergency service calls in a volunteer firefighter’s 40-year career last December, next-generation 911 helped provide clarity.

Veteran Micheal Dwyer of Arlington expressed his support Tuesday of such technology, describing a Dec. 28 response to a two-vehicle crash where a good friend of Dwyer’s died but two other lives were saved. He said new software helped, because it could transmit real-time photos, videos and text messages to responders, in addition to voice calls.

“We knew what we were walking into that day,” Dwyer told the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee on Tuesday.

‘Life-saving, emergency services’

This year, two state senators on the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee — John Fredrickson of Omaha and Wendy DeBoer of Omaha — are looking to create additional redundancy in the state’s 911 system to thwart future outages.

In just the last year, Fredrickson noted, there have been at least four 911 outages.

David Sankey, the Public Service Commission’s director of 911 oversight, has said that merging old and new technologies contributed to outages.

“We’re talking about 911,” Fredrickson said. “We’re not talking about streaming, Hulu or Netflix, we’re talking about life-saving, emergency services.”

The Public Service Commission, which handles 911 oversight, testified in support of the duo’s 911 bills:

  • Legislative Bill 1255, from Fredrickson, would set a timeline for the transition to next-gen 911, such as January 2026 or when required to do so by the Federal Communications Commission.
  • LB 1256, from DeBoer, would set a time frame for the PSC to hold a public hearing after receiving a report of a significant 911 service outage. Providers would also need to submit reports, already required for the FCC, to the state agency.

Next-generation 911 (LB 1255)

Commissioner Tim Schram of Gretna said next-gen 911 is crucial for public safety because it utilizes a dedicated emergency services Internet Protocol network that is faster and more resilient.

Sheriff Neil Miller of Buffalo County, testifying on behalf of Nebraska associations for sheriffs, police chiefs and police officers, said any delays in implementation must be avoided.

“Continuing to rely on outdated technology only increases the chances of an outage,” Miller testified.

But doing so comes with a cost, said Brian Thompson, who serves on the state’s advisory committee related to the transition. He estimated the cost of a company working outside its state “boundaries,” routing to networks in Denver or Chicago to complete the connection, at an annual price tag of about $15,000 per company, for each of about 28 providers.

Tip O’Neill, president of the Nebraska Telecommunications Association, said Fredrickson’s bill “tips the scales” in favor of the state’s next-gen 911 contractor.

DeBoer, pushing back on Thompson’s cost estimate, said there was probably more than “$15,000 of lobbyists, in this room, for this one hearing.”

“Fifteen thousand dollars is not a lot of money for something as important as 911,” she said. “Fifteen thousand dollars isn’t one life.”

Trent Fellers of Windstream also testified in opposition but said, in response to questions from DeBoer, that his company could possibly support legislation if the state bears the cost and liability outside a provider’s network boundaries.

Fredrickson said the transition to next-gen 911 is already underway nationwide, so he and Schram said costs are likely to be required regardless of LB 1255.

“The movement to next generation 911 must move forward so that we may create the redundancy needed to keep our people and communities safe,” Fredrickson said.

PSC hearings, reports (LB 1256)

Under LB 1256, PSC hearings would be required within 90 days of a reported 911 service outage, or 120 days there is “good cause” for a delay.

“Let’s speed up the process. Let’s get answers,” DeBoer said. “Let’s be sure the public knows we are taking care of this essential service.”

Commissioner Dan Watermeier of Syracuse, a former state senator, said hearings are already required by the PSC to determine what steps might prevent subsequent outages. DeBoer’s bill, he said, would increase transparency.

Jake Lestock, on behalf of CTIA, the trade association representing the wireless communications industry, said his industry is already working diligently to maintain networks and work to address issues.

He said the bill would create “unnecessary burdens,” add privacy risks involving proprietary information and be “duplicative” in nature.

Lestock said the PSC could apply for access to the private FCC reports, an organization with privacy protections better suited than the PSC to handle outages.

State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha told Lestock his testimony was “very flummoxing and unsettling” as Nebraska wants to boost 911 security. She said the PSC’s testimony in support of DeBoer’s bill shows the current system isn’t working.

DeBoer said she would be willing to build in guardrails to protect information and address concerns, but she noted her bill is not duplicative, no more than state governments duplicate efforts of the federal government. 

“This is, in fact, what we have the Public Service Commission for so that they can, within our borders, monitor things like our 911 project,” DeBoer said.

The committee took no immediate action on either 911-related bill.