911 Systems Face an Emergency

Benton, KY – For residents in the United States, help during an emergency is just a simple phone call away. A county's 911 answering system is essential for first responders. But the way Kentuckians communicate is changing. More and more people are choosing to abandon their land line phones in favor of wireless phones. The move may be more convenient and economical for many, but as Angela Hatton reports, it's putting 911 Call Centers in a tough spot.

Jeff Daniel has been looking at the numbers. Daniel is the 911 Director for Marshall County. He says since 2004, the call center has been spending more money than they've been taking in, and the gap is increasing. Daniel says the reason for this is wireless phones.

"Two thirds of the 911 calls that we received last fiscal year were from wireless, but only about thirty-five percent of our total revenue came from wireless."

Here's the situation. In the state of Kentucky, counties regulate the surcharge, that is the amount charged per month per phone for 911 fees, on all land line phones. However, the state legislature regulates the surcharge for wireless phones, and it hasn't changed since its inception in 1998. In Marshall County, the land line charge is $1.50. The state wireless rate is seventy cents.

"It takes 2.2 cell phones in a house to equal that dollar fifty surcharge rate. Somebody may say, 'Well, heck with a dollar fifty a month, I'm gonna just get a cell phone like everyone else is doing and just pay seventy cents.'"

The movement towards cell phones and other forms of wireless communication has Marshall County 911 drawing from their reserves.

"The end of the fiscal year 2003, had about half a million dollars in the bank. The end of the fiscal year this year, it had dropped to around a hundred and fifty thousand."

Daniel knew this trend wasn't sustainable, so he approached the county 911 board with the financial data. In turn, the board decided to bring in the fiscal court.

"Certainly we cannot and will not lose 911 service here in the county."

Marshall County Judge-Executive Mike Miller and commissioners recently discussed the issue. They could raise the surcharge or they could choose to subsidize the call center through county and city funds. Both are actions they've never had to consider before. Right now, Miller says the fiscal court is in a holding pattern until the county's three city councils have the chance to consider the issue. However, he says anything they do will only be a band-aid solution to the larger problem.

"Our task is only going to be is until the General Assembly meets again and can address this issue and can hopefully address this issue and raise the surcharge to a comparable level so we can at least break even. We've not looking to make money. But we are looking to break even and keep our equipment updated."

Marshall County's 911 revenue issue is not an isolated incident, but merely the latest in a statewide trend, and at least one legislator did bring up 911 surcharges in last year's General Assembly. Senator Tom Buford of Louisville introduced a bill that called for an investigation into alternate revenue streams for 911 call centers. Buford claims disputes between the House and Senate killed the proposal.

"But I would hope that we would take it up and deal with it, because there are going to be some services no doubt reduced and some counties that claimed, the judges and the magistrates claim they might just discontinue the service altogether."

Marshall County Judge-Executive Mike Miller is already talking to his area's state representative about supporting legislation next year.

"Knowing the mood of the General Assembly, this is something they're going to have to be convinced of the need and the necessity for 911."

Until the 2010 session, many county 911 networks remain in survival mode. However, technology isn't waiting for officials to find a solution. Marshall 911 Director Jeff Daniel says they need to upgrade their dispatch system, which becomes obsolete at the end of this year. He's applied for a federal grant to cover the cost. If that falls through, Daniel and the 911 board will have to do what they've been doing and find the money somewhere else.