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FCC official blasts R.I. for ‘effectively stealing’ E-911 fees

Commissioner says the state has diverted more than $8M from emergency systems

CRANSTON — A member of the Federal Communications Commission on Monday blasted the state for “effectively stealing” millions of dollars raised each year for the local emergency 911 system, calling the practice an “enormous deception.”

“Rhode Island is the second largest diverting state in terms of overall amount and percentage behind only New Jersey,” said the commissioner, Michael O’Rielly, who presented data compiled by the FCC in 2017.

That data, he said, shows that Rhode Island had diverted more than $8 million, or 60 percent, of the fees it collected for 911 and spent it on other budget items.

O’Rielly’s visit — at the request of a Republican lawmaker — made for some interesting political theater, due in part to his assertion that his comments were in no way intended to influence politics.

He stressed what he described as an “insidious” and “appalling” diversion of money away from an essential public safety function.

Each month, Rhode Islanders who maintain landline phones pay a $1 fee for 911 service while anyone who runs a cellphone pays a $1 fee for 911 and a fee of 26 cents for something called geolocation services, according to state Rep. Robert B. Lancia, a Republican who invited O’Rielly to what was represented as a “summit.”

In recent years, said Lancia, the state has collected about $15 million in fees each year under a specific line item for the E911 system, but the system only receives about $5.4 million.

Other states have tried to argue that it really doesn’t matter if a portion of 911 funds are diverted because the call centers and underlying networks receive enough money, O’Rielly said.

“That’s what Rhode Island officials seem to be saying,” he said. “But this too is flatly wrong. Beyond the enormous deception being perpetrated it’s highly likely that the public safety systems are not receiving the funding that they need to operate or mitigate the Next Generation or NG911 systems.”

Before they were joined by Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, a Republican candidate for governor, at the event in the city’s library, both O’Rielly and Lancia toured the state’s 911 emergency call center at Rhode Island State Police headquarters in Scituate.

O’Rielly also talked to senior staff from Gov. Gina Raimondo’s office.

Later Monday, the governor’s office issued a news release. The statement detailed plans for hiring new personnel and said that the administration has told the FCC that it would support legislative reforms to reestablish a restricted account for money raised from 911 fees.

The release also stated that Rhode Island’s response time “is faster than national standards recommended by the National Emergency Numbers Association (NENA),” and “more than 95 percent of calls are answered in 10 seconds or less.”

Citing a WJAR report, O’Rielly said insufficient funding has undermined Rhode Island’s 911 system, leading to longer wait times, delayed emergency responses, worker fatigue, lower morale and an inability to invest in new systems.

Meanwhile, other speakers at the summit described advances in 911 services that can save lives.

Experts said that in some other states, emergency responders in cities and towns can pinpoint the locations of cellphone callers with geolocation information; specialists at 911 call centers can coach bystanders how to save lives by administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation; and, 911 operators can receive emergency messages via text, a function that Raimondo’s office says will come online later this year.

“We should have that technology now,” said Cranston’s police chief, Col. Michael J. Winquist. “We don’t have it.”

On Monday, he said that federal law requires the FCC to “call out states that are effectively stealing funds from public safety to be used for other purposes.”

O’Rielly terms the activity “name and shame.”

At another point, he said: “This should in no way be interpreted as to suggest that you influence or lobby your state or federal government officials on the topic.”

O’Rielly came under fire recently for voicing support for the reelection of President Donald Trump.

Under the Hatch Act, government officials like O’Rielly generally aren’t supposed to advocate for election outcomes, according to the Washington Post.

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