Sen. Jeff Danielson: Reinventing 911 for the Internet Age

A brutal tragedy sparks a lawmaker’s efforts to reform Iowa’s 911 system.

Image credit: Getty

In July 2012, cousins Lyric Cook-Morrisey and Elizabeth Collins, ages 10 and 8, went missing while on a bike ride near their home in Evansdale, Iowa.

The girls failed to turn up despite days of intense search efforts by police and volunteers. Five months later, hunters found their bodies in the woods, roughly 25 miles from where the girls were last seen. Their murderer has yet to be caught.

The tragedy of the missing girls riveted Iowans for months, prompting national attention and mobilizing thousands of citizens to help in the search. In the year following the girls’ abduction, police fielded more than 1,100 leads, and local police recently began a new campaign to solicit the public’s help.

For State Sen. Jeff Danielson, who represents the community where Lyric and Elizabeth lived, the case was a “gut-wrenching” turning point in his thinking about emergency services – and in particular, 911.

“There’s a window of opportunity when children go missing that closes as time goes on,” said Danielson. “If there had been a more rapid way to inform the public of where the girls were and what they were doing, we could have engaged the eyes and ears of the community much better through a two-way process.”

For Danielson, who also serves as a firefighter in Cedar Falls, modernizing Iowa’s 911 system was already a legislative priority. In 2012, he led legislation to invest $3.7 million in upgrades to the Iowa 911 system.

And in October 2014, under Danielson’s lead, the State of Iowa debuted “Alert Iowa,” a two-way emergency “mass notification” system that is among the first of its kind in the country. In addition to traditional voice calls, Iowa’s 911 can now communicate with citizens using social media, text and email – and citizens can respond back.

“The traditional way of using 9-1-1 when someone has something to report is very closed and one-way,” said Danielson. “A citizen calls in, they give the information, they hang up, and nothing more is done. Under ‘mass notification,’ the dispatch centers can then push that information out on Facebook, Twitter, text and email, engaging the public to give us more information about what’s going on.”

In a world where social media now fuels the rapid-fire sharing of news, it may surprise many Americans to know that in many places, 911 emergency services have yet to make the transition to the Internet. Despite calls from a federal taskforce to make a national transition to Internet-based 911 (so-called “Next Generation 911”) as early as 2009, only a handful of states – such as Iowa – have made the leap.

Many systems – still rooted in land-based telephone lines – can’t handle the texts, data, images and videos that many Americans now use to communicate.

In fact, in many jurisdictions, the transition to wireless 911 is also incomplete. As of November 2014, for example, just 152 counties in 18 states had the capability for citizens to text 911.

Danielson, however, argues that a modern, Internet-based 911 is critical for preventing tragedies like the one that claimed Lyric and Elizabeth’s lives. This interview has been edited for length.

R3.0: What are the benefits of bringing social media to 911?

Iowa State Sen. Jeff Danielson

Iowa State Sen. Jeff Danielson

Danielson: [Social media] can be a tremendous tool for good, especially when we have incidents where the timeliness of the reporting is helpful.

Take, for example, when you have a missing person – young or old. The tragic events involving Elizabeth and Lyric are one end of the spectrum, but Iowa also has a significant percentage of citizens who are elderly. We lead the nation in the number of people over age 85, and we’re among the top 10 states for people over the age of 65.

When someone wanders away in very cold weather, especially if they’re suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s, we don’t have a lot of time to find them in order to get them back to safety.

This concept [of two-way emergency communication] has application across a lot of different scenarios that happen in our community. Why not use all those folks who are tweeting, on Facebook, texting or on email? Why not use that activity to communicate in ways that we never thought possible to improve public safety?

It also saves us money.

We have approximately 115 dispatch centers in Iowa. If each of them were to implement “mass notification,” they would have to pay for that separately and make sure the technology syncs up. It’s very expensive and doesn’t encourage interoperability.

So what we did in Iowa is have the state pay for the system. That saves a lot of money in licensing fees, operational software, etc., all across the state. But operationally, it’s very important too. All the public safety agencies – police, fire, EMS [emergency medical services], homeland security, state troopers, DNR [Department of Natural Resources], DOT [Department of Transportation] – can now communicate off the same platform, and information can be shared much more quickly and effectively.

You couldn’t imagine this kind of integration 10 or 15 years ago, but that is the definition of being a progressive. We are trying to stay ahead of the curve.

R3.0: Even if Internet-based 911 is cheaper in the long run, it takes investment in the short run. How did Iowa solve the funding problem?

Danielson: Traditionally, 911 call centers have been paid for by landline telephone fees. The challenge over the last 10 years is that a lot of people have disconnected their landlines and are using cellphones.

Our entire 911 dispatch center revenue stream was based on landlines, and if we didn’t change from a landline-based 911 surcharge to a cellphone surcharge, we wouldn’t have been able to pay for our dispatch centers.

So we put together a plan to change the surcharge on cellphones versus landlines and to put [the system] back into solvency for Iowa. It’s probably a lesson learned for other states that if you’re trying to do this individually in communities all around your state, it’s going to be a very haphazard and painful process.

This is where having a state-wide policy makes more sense, and what we do is share revenues throughout the community after we collect it through the state. It’s a state and local partnership, and it’s also a public-private partnership because cellphone companies and landline telephone companies all have to play a role.

But guess how long it took to get this change in Iowa? Almost two years.

We live in a world where the public wants to know what they’re paying for and why. I can’t tell you a more popular public service than 911. But I argued for two years that if people want and need 911 as a service, we ought to pay for it.

Part of being a progressive lawmaker is making sure you can finance and pay for what you want to do in a way that the public supports. If you don’t get that right, the best ideas don’t ever have a chance of getting adopted in the first place.

R3.0: What’s the role of federal policy in helping states upgrade their 911 systems?

There’s currently an effort to build a system called FirstNet, which is essentially a broadband public safety network around the country. When the feds come into a state to build that system out, they have to understand [how important it is] to integrate it with the kind of mass notification system that we have in Iowa.

If they do that, we will ensure that you can engage the public when very large incidents – terrorist attacks, etc. – unfold and you can collect a lot of information that would not have been available through traditional one-way 911 calls. We think this can be fully integrated up and down state, federal and local systems, and we can all benefit from that.

R3.0: What’s next for Iowa 911?

Danielson: We hope to achieve 100 percent coverage in the state, since we’re only about a year into the [new system]. We also want this to be fully integrated with all of our public safety software systems.

And then we have to tell the public that it’s available. If we make this service available, and nobody knows they can sign up on Facebook, Twitter, text, and email, then we really haven’t achieved what we want.

It’s my hope and vision that eventually “there will be an app for that” and that it will be cool to sign up and get the app. Once we get that, we’ll know we’ve been successful.

The important takeaway is that we can save money and improve public safety at the same time. If the public is skeptical about government being able to do things like this, here’s an example of a success story – a tool that can help prevent some of the most terrible tragedies in our community.

Danielson is an Iowa State Senator and a member of the NewDEAL, a national coalition of “pro-growth progressive” elected officials. Follow: @JeffDanielson

Anne Kim is Editor of Republic 3.0. 

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