Upgrades for 911

Saturday, November 29, 2003

The Cape Girardeau County Commission expressed some surprise last week when it learned that $1 million in 911 fees collected for upgrades to the emergency telephone system was in a checking account drawing 0.5 percent interest. Another $1 million is in higher-paying accounts.

The money came from a fee assessed on each Cape Girardeau County telephone line -- 8 percent of the base rate -- for 911 emergency service.

Now that the county commission knows about the 911 accounts, handling the money is easy enough.

More important is the issue of when that money is going to be spent to make life safer for the people who live in and travel through Cape Girardeau County and use cell phones to call for 911 assistance. David Hitt, the county's Emergency Operations Center director, is involved with the 911 advisory board and has been working with the commission recently to get service upgrades.

Hitt recently explained where he'd like the county to be as far as wireless 911 calling. The good news is that $2 million will be enough to get there.

The planned upgrades relate to making the response to 911 calls made from cell phones more effective. Currently when callers dial 911 on their cell phones, the call will bounce off a tower and go to the public service answering point dictated by the caller's cell phone provider. Say the call goes to the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department. The dispatcher will only see a number that identifies the tower that conveyed the call, not the caller's cell-phone number.

If the tower nearest the caller is at capacity, the call could bounce to a tower farther away, making it even more difficult for rescue workers to find the caller, Hitt said.

Under the next phase of proposed improvement to the 911 system, a caller can dial 911 and the dispatcher will get the caller's cell phone number. The dispatcher still won't know where the caller is, but he can call back if disconnected.

Hitt plans to take the county to the optimal phase: When a caller dials 911, the dispatcher gets the caller's cell phone number and location within approximately 150 feet.

"Is that close enough?" Hitt asked. "Emergency responders should be able to find you unless you are in a building."

Two million dollars will get the county to that optimum phase. The money also will pay for a records management upgrade. With the upgrade, if a caller dials 911 on a land line, the dispatcher will get information about outstanding warrants, orders of protection and other information that can help law enforcement respond in a more effective manner. Hitt also wants an atomic clock system that will synchronize all dispatching stations -- Cape Girardeau city, county and the city of Jackson -- so the times will be the same for 911 calls no matter which station gets them. That could become an important issue in court.

Hitt is in the process of getting bids for all the work needed to make the upgrades. Work could begin in February or March, with wireless 911 service available by the middle of 2004.

That will make for a safer Cape Girardeau County and justify the millions of dollars phone users have put into county coffers though the special 911 tax.

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