Sen. Jason Crowell wants to consolidate 911 call centers in Missouri

Sunday, February 8, 2009

County commissioners across the state want more funding for 911 centers.

But they aren't going to get it without making hard choices, according to Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau.

Crowell wants to see 911 centers across the state consolidated, a message he delivered to Cape Girardeau County Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones during a meeting in Jefferson City on Thursday and repeated later that day during a Senate hearing. The hearing was for a bill introduced by Sen. John Griesheimer, R-Washington, that would put a 25-cent cell phone tax on the ballot and allow the state to determine who gets the funding.

Voters have twice rejected taxing cell phones to pay for 911 services. Because cell phones are legally considered radio devices, they are not taxed, as land-line phones are, for 911 services. With more people dropping land lines in favor of cell-only service, funding for 911 has fallen.

More 911 calls

The number of calls into 911 centers has risen, requiring more dispatchers, according to county commissioners from around the state. Jones said as much to Crowell about Cape Girardeau's emergency services -- and the need for better funding.

"You're never, ever going to get the money until you consolidate," Crowell said. "I'll force you. I'll starve you down to it, if you're not going to do it of your own free will."

He went on to say the state has 114 counties but 174 individual 911 call centers, including two across the street from one another in Chillicothe, Mo. In a world where all fast-food orders for a chain restaurant go to one place, he said, and all North American service calls for Charter Communications go through Cape Girardeau, there has to be a way to streamline 911 services.

"I know how important it is," Crowell said. "But by gosh we can do it more efficiently, and that's what the taxpayers deserve and that's what the taxpayers demand."

He said the state should have five call centers: one for each quadrant of Missouri and one in the middle.

"You do it and I'll support it," Jones said, adding a warning that it was an area of "turf wars."

Cape Girardeau County has three 911 centers, one operated by Cape Girardeau, one by Jackson and one by the county. Scott County has five independent 911 centers.

Scott County Sheriff Rick Walter said he has been discussing consolidation with those in and around his county.

"I'm for [consolidation] as long as we can make it work and be efficient," he said. "You have to look at it from a business point of view."

At this point, he is spending $64,000 each year to close the gap between current 911 funding and the actual cost of providing the service.

Over the last month, he's laid off two part-time deputies and has not filled an open full-time deputy position.

Walter said he could see a regional center in any number of Southeast Missouri cities, such as Cape Girardeau, Sikeston or Benton.

But "once those 911 dispatchers leave, I'm still responsible for dispatching my own department," he said.

'Stretching it'

Mark Hasheider, assistant fire chief and emergency operations manager for Cape Girardeau, said the technology exists for consolidation, but without further research it appeared limiting the state to five 911 centers "would be stretching it."

Even after hearing Crowell suggested that a site similar to Cape Girardeau's new 911 center would be a perfect regional center, Hasheider questioned whether such centers could do what is necessary during an emergency.

"In my mind a regional hub could take a call and dispatch a firetruck that might be 100 miles away, but it takes a lot of technology to do that," he said. But he suggested that what could be lost is the ability for a distant dispatcher to know, in his example, that Snake Hill Road is also known as Cape Rock Drive.

"I'm not against the consolidation of 911 centers. In some counties that would be very beneficial, especially for counties that do not have 911 service as we know it today," he said.

Before anyone talks about where such centers would be, he said, there should be a clear understanding of dispatchers' responsibilities and whether call information would be forwarded or dispatched directly, as well as what would happen if one of the five regional centers was put out of commission for one reason or another.

He said Cape Girardeau's three centers "are working. It's not a broken system."

As Thursday's Senate hearing on Senate Bill 119 wound down, Griesheimer asked R.D. Porter, the state's 911 coordinator, to lead an effort among the counties to "come up with a number" for consolidating the centers.

Griesheimer said he wanted to see results before the Senate voted on the bill he introduced. He said he wanted the vote to happen before the Senate's mid-March spring break.

pmcnichol@semissourian.com

388-3646

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