In the fall of 2013, shoppers at the Garden State Plaza mall in Paramus fled in terror as a man with a rifle stalked the halls. Police officers, going through each store one by one, rescued dozens of people with no injuries.
But what if those in the mall could have given police an eye into the madness? What if they could have sent cell phone photos and videos, revealing their location and helping track the gunman's whereabouts?
That life-saving technology exists. And for more than a decade, every person in New Jersey with a phone has paid a tax on their monthly bill to make it happen, handing over a whopping $1.37 billion to Trenton.
Then came the classic Jersey bait-and-switch.
Rather than using the money for 911, lawmakers and governors have instead raided it time and again to balance the budget, leaving critical upgrades to the state's most important public safety system on hold.
An NJ Advance Media analysis found that of the $1.37 billion the state has collected in 911 fees since 2004, only 15 percent, about $211 million, has been used to help pay for the 911 system.
Investment in the upgrade, known as NextGen 911, has trickled to a halt.
From 2005 to 2008, records show the state spent about $42 million on it. Since then, it has spent $71,652. In 2014, the most recent year available, it put just $9,141 of the $121 million it collected toward the upgrade.
"There are lives that have been lost because of this," said Dominic Villecco, vice president for the New Jersey Wireless Association. "These funds are there to help save people's lives."
The Federal Communication Commission agrees. In a recent report to Congress, the FCC said implementing NextGen 911 would save more than 10,000 lives annually nationwide, providing a benefit of $92 billion.
Despite the stakes, state officials and lawmakers had little to say about the upgrade. The governor's office and Attorney General Christopher Porrino declined comment. The head of information technology, David Weinstein, said it was a "huge priority" but had no plan to pay for it.
"That's still under consideration," Weinstein said.
The New Jersey Association of Counties met in August with Gov. Chris Christie's office to urge that more money be put toward the 911 system to ease the burden on local taxpayers. The group's executive director, John Donnadio, said the administration made no commitments.
And a bill pending in the state Assembly would require implementation of portions of NextGen 911, specifically multimedia communications. But the legislation, which calls for increasing the 911 fee, has gone nowhere, and its backers did not return calls for comment.
From 2012 to 2014, only 10 states spent less on the NextGen 911 upgrade, and many — such as Alaska, Montana, New Mexico and West Virginia — lack complete cellular and internet service coverage.
New Jersey, however, has one of the best networks in the country. And no other state has collected more in 911 fees from its residents.
"I don't think there's anyone in public safety that would say it's not critical to get NextGen," said Trey Forgety, director of government affairs for the National Emergency Number Association.
A PROMISING START
The current 911 system, largely the same as it was 40 years ago, has become a patchwork of Band-Aids as officials have tried to modify it to accommodate modern technology of multimedia cell phones.
Federal officials say the system has reached its limit.
The state Legislature and Gov. James McGreevey took on the problem in 2004, creating the 911 System and Emergency Response Trust Fund, bankrolled by a monthly 90-cent tax on every New Jersey phone line.
The tax commonly appears on phone bills as "911 Service Fee" and has raked in an average of $124 million a year since its inception.
According to Star-Ledger coverage of the issue from 2004, the tax was sold to the public and legislators as a means of revamping the aging 911 system. The problems outlined 12 years ago — difficulty in locating calls from mobile phones and an antiquated system ill-equipped for a mobile world — are identical to what experts point to today.
Republicans initially opposed the tax because it left the door open for the state to fund non-911 related law enforcement services. But they ultimately relented and the measure passed.
And for the first four years, New Jersey was a national leader, sinking more than $118 million into the 911 system, with more than 35 percent going toward NextGen 911 upgrades. Tens of millions of dollars more in grants were issued to county and local 911 offices, creating a reliable funding stream to the people who handle the bulk of 911 calls.
All that changed in 2009 under former Gov. Jon Corzine.
Annual contributions to the 911 system were cut by more than half. County and local offices have not seen a dime from the fund in seven years. And only in 2013 and 2014 has the state contributed any money from the fund toward NextGen 911 upgrades — a combined $71,000.
According to the state budget, New Jersey now uses the money to help pay for the Department of Law and Public Safety and the Department of Military and Veteran Affairs, specifically rural policing, urban search and rescue, the Office of Homeland Security, the National Guard and the general operating budget of the New Jersey State Police.
The budget does not say exactly how much of the 911 money goes where. Andrew Pratt, a spokesman for the Office of Information Technology, which is part of the state Treasury Department, said he could not provide that level of detailed spending.
"The 911 fee has paid for hundreds of millions of dollars of New Jersey public safety needs since the fee's inception in 2004," Pratt said. "Diverting resources to enable greater local spending would reduce funding for programs that benefit every state citizen."
Residents said the explanation sounded like Jersey politics as usual.
"Whatever they get, they decide where it goes," said Carlo Consentino, 69, of Eatontown. "I don't know how you control that, I really don't. They get the money and they divvy it around, and it's just sickening."
Raiding money collected for one thing and using it for another is nothing new in Trenton — in fact, it's become an annual ritual. For example, Christie has routinely raided hundreds of millions of dollars from the Clean Energy Fund, paid for by all electric and gas customers. The money was intended to reduce energy use and promote renewables.
The only way to legally dedicate money for a specified purpose in New Jersey is to amend the state Constitution, as has been done to pay for things such as transportation projects, environmental clean ups and open space and farmland preservation. But not the 911 system.
A CRITICAL UPGRADE
The importance of NextGen 911 cannot be understated. People would be able to communicate back and forth with dispatchers by text, photo and video. The system could share information in real time with any first responders, from dispatch to police to hospitals, and run it through databases such as property records.
Calls would be routed to dispatch centers automatically and location data from cell phones, which remains unreliable, would be improved.
And the system would be web-based, allowing the same kind of sharing of multimedia, geolocation and messaging most people use daily.
"The whole idea is speed," said Martin Pagliughi, director of the Cape May County Emergency Management Communications Center. "Any enhancement to that technology will save lives."
Among other benefits, the upgrade would also ensure emergency calls from cell phones get sent to the correct dispatch center, rather than going to one further away or in another state, which costs valuable time.
Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden said his call center has fielded calls from Staten Island, N.Y.
"That's why we always ask where's your emergency first," Golden said. "It used to be, 'What's your emergency?' After wireless came in, it's 'Where's your emergency?'"
In Cumberland County in August, a state trooper shot 76-year-old Gerald Sykes several times after a 911 call was mistakenly routed to multiple dispatch centers. The dispatch center in Vineland erroneously sent officers to Sykes' home using bad location data.
When they arrived, Sykes, who hadn't called 911, thought they were burglars and grabbed his shotgun. Perceiving a threat, the trooper shot him through a window, critically injuring him.
"If that money had been distributed properly and local authorities could work with carriers to improve location accuracy, maybe that man doesn't get shot," said Villecco, of the state wireless association.
Upgrading to NextGen can also help solve crimes, said Robin Blaker, the public safety director in Camden County.
"If we could provide police with good, solid information, can you imagine the solve rate for crimes?" Blaker said. "It's out there, it's just about everyone working together to make it happen."