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Some counties lag in 911 capabilities

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Missouri's emergency service coverage lags behind the rest of the country and is among the nation's worst in allowing 911 operators to determine a caller's location.

Throughout most of the country, it is assumed that when someone picks up a wireline phone that the caller will be able to connect to a local 911 system, so most of the attention has focused on upgrading existing systems to handle wireless and Internet calls.

An Associated Press review of data from the state, trade groups and a consultant's report shows that roughly 20 percent of Missouri's counties do not have a fully functioning system for even landline telephones, and fewer than one-third of Missouri counties can track a cell phone caller's location.

A recent consultant report shows that among other Midwestern states, only Illinois and Oklahoma lack 911 systems in more than 10 percent of their counties.

And according to March data from the National Emergency Number Association, Missouri is tied with Montana and Nebraska for having the most counties unable to track the origin of 911 calls from landline telephones.

"In one domestic violence case, dispatch staff listened to the abuse for 52 minutes before the abuser finally passed out and the caller could tell them where she was at," said R.D. Porter, Missouri's 911 coordinator.

Porter and other emergency service administrators blame the problem on funding. Missouri uses a phone tariff to pay for wireline 911 service, but it is the only state without a statewide fee or tax for wireless 911 service. Voters have twice rejected ballot measures to raise taxes for 911 service, most recently in 2002.

Bollinger County

Bollinger is the only county surrounding Cape Girardeau without enhanced 911 capability.

A third-class county with a population of 12,341, Bollinger County receives several 911 calls daily but routes them to a landline phone at the sheriff's office in Marble Hill, Mo. The county employs a 24-hour dispatcher and has caller ID technology allowing it to track a return phone number.

But this, county officials say, falls well short of what is needed.

"It affects people in the community. and we're trying to get that service put in," Sheriff Terry Wiseman said.

An April ballot measure approved by voters made a nearly four-year-old half-cent sales tax permanent in the county. Portions of the about $280,000 annual revenue from the tax will go toward updating the county's 911 system, commissioners said earlier this month.

Wiseman said that time can't come quickly enough.

"It's going to save lives," he said.

The upgrade will cost $60,000 to $80,000.

Cape Girardeau County has e911 but no ability to trace cell phone callers. The county is in the process of purchasing software to upgrade its three dispatch centers with cell phone- tracking technology.

The upgrade has a price tag of about $2 million, said county emergency operations coordinator Charlie Griffith.

Today, the 911 budget of Cape Girardeau and most other counties is steadily declining. Cape Girardeau gets the majority of its funding from an 8 percent tax on all landline phone bills. But as people switch from landlines to cell phones, which are not taxed, the funding decreases.

"We're striking out so to speak. Many people in Cape Gir-ardeau County are eliminating landlines and using cell phones, and they're not paying a tax," Griffith said.

Late last year, now-retired emergency operations coordinator David Hitt said Cape Gir-ardeau's 911 budget was dropping at a rate of $8,000 to $16,000 per year. The budget is about $400,000, Hitt said.

Some ability

Scott County is the only area county with some cell phone tracking ability.

Perry County receives between 800 and 900 calls per month at its two public service access points. All of its cell phone 911 calls are routed to the sheriff's office, and landline calls are routed to the Perryville Police Department.

The county has an annual enhanced-911 budget of almost $242,000, which county officials say has remained stable in recent years.

"We've been pretty fortunate in Perry County. It's dropped off a little bit, but no big numbers. If you look at adjoining counties, their revenue has fallen off," said Perry County e-911 director Jack Lakenan.

A county that wants 911 service that can locate a portable device has to find a way to pay for it. And without an upgrade from basic landline service, a call made from a cell phone or through the Internet can end up routed to another county's call center to dispatchers who are not familiar with the area.

The vast majority of Missouri's population has access to wireline 911 service, and even most of the population -- 62 percent -- has limited access to 911 service that could trace a cell phone call, depending on the carrier. Nationwide, 99 percent of the population live in an area with basic 911 service while 83 percent live where there is some tracking ability for wireless phones.

Legislative committee

Missouri's hodgepodge of 911 access led Gov. Matt Blunt to call recently for the creation of a legislative committee to study ways to expand 911 coverage.

Part of the problem in Missouri is that because the bulk of the population is covered by 911 and lives in areas with at least some capability to track wireless calls, people do not realize that significant chunks of the state cannot track those calls. That makes it difficult to get lawmakers or the public to support a new fee or a higher tax.

Southeast Missourian staff reporter TJ Greaney contributed to this article.


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