State budget shortfalls must be filled, but the diversion of funding from the state’s 911 system to plug these gaps is a dangerous short-term tactic.

The Federal Communications Commission just reported to Congress that Maine was one of only a dozen states to use 911 money for its general operating budget this year, through transferring $2.6 million of the $6.6 million fund — or 40 percent.

Given still-bleak revenue projections, this is funding that won’t come back — at least not soon. This leaves the state at a disadvantage in improving its 911 system for the social sea-change sweeping the telecommunications industry: the wholesale shift from wired to wireless communication.

The fire in Dixfield several weeks ago, when emergency dispatchers were unable to summon the local fire department because of confused callers and cellular signals, is thankfully — now — an exceedingly rare occasion. In most instances, the dispatch-responder relationship runs smoothly and efficiently.

But it is, for better or for worse, a system based on an eroding foundation: the hard-wired phone line, which is a nearly foolproof indicator of location. With more than half of 911 calls in Maine now coming from cellular phones, this rock-solid system of finding emergencies is becoming more complex.

It is also decentralized, growing under the purview of wireless companies that are planting towers to grow market share, but are unregulated by Maine’s utility watchdogs. Sharpening the ability to locate emergencies is now related to economic conditions, rather then the overall public good.

Even more disconcerting are the struggles of FairPoint in Maine, which could go a long way toward hastening disconnections of traditional hard-line phones, or indicate their days are numbered. FairPoint is here because wired technology was viewed, in Verizon’s eyes, as being an unprofitable business.

The question is: In an emergency, how do we ensure that the reliability of hard-line phones transfers to the cellular technology?

There’s certainly a long answer to this question. It may involve greater regulations on the wireless companies and phone manufacturers. There’s a short answer too: Funding.

That’s why transferring 911 funds to fill other budget gaps is risky, if the intention — or means — doesn’t exist to repay this debt. Underfunding emergency communications is a not a wise strategy, long term or short.

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