Stateline reports that a rash of disruptions in the country’s antiquated 911 system points up the urgent need for new technology to save lives in the wireless age. Earlier this month, AT&T wireless customers nationwide found they couldn’t dial 911, prompting local emergency officials in more than a half dozen states to tell people to call an alternate number or text authorities in case of emergency. In Dallas this month, callers were unable to reach 911 during spikes in calls that put hundreds of people on hold. And in October, a malicious Twitter post with a link targeting faulty phone software caused people’s cellphones to repeatedly call 911 in cities around the country in a cyberattack against the country’s emergency-response system.
The incidents demonstrate the need for states and localities to switch to new technology that uses digital routing instead of old-fashioned phone lines with switches. Internet-based systems are better capable of handling cellphone traffic that is subject to accidental or malicious misuse. An estimated 70 percent of emergency calls are now made via cellphone, but few states and localities have the technology to fend off abuse or buggy software that can cause cellphones to call 911 repeatedly and stall the entire system. Most emergency officials know how vulnerable their systems are but worry about where they will get the money to upgrade them. The National 911 Program, housed in the U.S. Department of Transportation, is studying the costs associated with the transition to help Congress develop a long-term funding plan.