FCC Adopts New Rules Cracking Down on 911 Fee Diversions | Citizens Against Government Waste

FCC Adopts New Rules Cracking Down on 911 Fee Diversions

The WasteWatcher

For several years, Citizens Against Government Waste has reported on states diverting 9-1-1 fees collected from telecommunications customers toward non-emergency services or other purposes like “closing budget gaps and bolstering their rainy day funds.”  Former Federal Communications (FCC) Commissioner Michael O’Rielly made this issue one of his top priorities during his seven years at the agency, calling out states and their governors for diverting fees and ignoring requests for information on how the 9-1-1 funds were being used.

On June 24, 2021, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted a Report and Order aimed at stopping states from transferring money from their 9-1-1 fee funds into other areas of their budgets.  This fulfills a requirement to issue these rules within 180 days of the enactment of the Don’t Break Up the T-Band Act, which became law as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, signed on December 27, 2020.

The new rules clarify fee diversions, expand the definition of a “9-1-1 fee or charge,” and explain the appropriate procedural behavior regarding 9-1-1 fees.  State and local governments that use revenues from 9-1-1 fees for purposes that do not directly support 9-1-1 operations, like paying for budget shortfalls or unfunded pensions for government employees, will risk losing access to federal 9-1-1 funding.  The Report and Order identified other unacceptable uses of revenue, including transfers into the general fund, the purchase of equipment or infrastructure for non-public safety communications networks, and funding for law enforcement, firefighters, and other public safety initiatives that do not have a direct impact on the ability of a public safety answering point (PSAP) to deliver 9-1-1 services.

The FCC also clarified acceptable purposes and functions of 9-1-1 expenditures, including PSAP operating costs, personnel costs, administration, integrating public safety and first responder dispatch and 9-1-1 systems, and providing for the interoperability of 9-1-1 systems.

One topic of disagreement regarding acceptability has been public-safety radio systems.  To address this issue, the FCC order states, “In light of the divided record on using 911 fees for

public safety radio systems, we provide additional guidance on when such use of 911 fees will be deemed to have purposes or functions that ‘directly support providing 9-1-1 services’ and so qualifies as ‘acceptable’ for purposes of avoiding section 902 consequences.”

Several commenters raised concerns with the order specifying that diversion includes distribution of 911 fees by a state to a locality that diverts them.  However, the FCC said that states should be held responsible for fee diversion by local jurisdictions within their boundaries.  Otherwise, states or taxing jurisdictions would have an incentive to avoid oversight and accountability.  

The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) both expressed support for the FCC’s new rules.  APCO Executive Director and CEO Derek Poarch applauded the order, stating: “APCO appreciates the Commission’s further action to address 911 fee diversion, particularly the decision, as APCO suggested, to gather information annually about the extent and impact of underfunding 911.  APCO looks forward to supporting the Commission’s ongoing efforts, including through participation as a member of the 911 Fee Diversion Strike Force.”

NENA’s Regulatory Counsel and Director of Government Affairs Dan Henry stated, “The Commission’s new rules provide much-needed clarity on what does and does not constitute 911 fee diversion, which is essential as the stakes for diversion are raised with the potential federal NG911 transition funding … As always, we deeply appreciate the [FCC’s] Public Safety Bureau’s hard work in this and other 911 proceedings.”

The FCC’s Report and Order by the FCC resolves a longstanding issue that created serious concerns over public safety by ensuring that 9-1-1-fees are used as intended and not redirected for unrelated purposes..  The new rules will eliminate waste and mismanagement and increase the efficiency and effectiveness of public safety.

-Irene Caracioni

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