Missouri House panel to examine 911 systems

Monday, June 20, 2011

If he weren't a public official it's likely Scott County Presiding Commissioner Jamie Burger wouldn't have a land-line telephone at his home.

Like a growing number of Missouri residents, he doesn't see the need. His cellphone is what he uses to make calls the majority of the time.

The problem, though, is many of the 911 call centers in Missouri are funded by a tax on land lines. As more Missourians drop their service and opt for a smartphone or other wireless connection, the state's 911 call centers are struggling to operate.

According to the National Emergency Number Association, of the more than 240 million calls made to 911 in 2006, nearly half were made by cellphone users. That's a dramatic increase the association says, up from nearly 4 million wireless 911 calls in 1996.

"It's a dangerous situation and something that deserves our immediate attention," said Rep. Chuck Gatschenberger, a Lake St. Louis Republican who will head a new committee set to study the aging emergency system. "We take for granted that dialing 911 will bring us immediate help, but that simply isn't the case in all parts of the state."

In a news release last week, Missouri House Speaker Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, announced the interim committee's formation. In their most recent legislative session, House members reviewed a bill that would have established a tax on cell services, but it failed to go to a vote. A companion bill was not filed in the Missouri Senate. Voters have also rejected ballot measures to raise taxes for 911 service.

In the release, Tilley said he created the Interim Committee on 911 Access to find ways to bring uniformity to the 911 system.

Burger said Tilley is taking the right approach to the initiative -- whether or not it's through a statewide fee or tax on cellphones, the issue should be addressed throughout the state, not county by county.

"He's in the position to get the bill introduced, and he's in the position to help us get it passed," Burger said. "There's not a state representative or a state senator that doesn't realize what we need."

Burger said the Scott County 911 system has been maintained well and is reasonably up-to-date -- it's about seven years old -- but revenue for the service is still declining. Revenue has dropped more than $100,000 in 10 years, he said, and some counties are in a worse position than Scott County.

More than 30 counties, according to Gatschenberger, don't have the technology necessary to locate a person calling 911 from a cellphone.

Cape Girardeau County, which has generally seen declining revenue from land-line taxes, doesn't have that technology, either.

Emergency manager Richard Knaup said in March, when the House was reviewing the bill for a tax on cell services, the technology to track 911 calls from cellphones is expensive.

"We can't afford to bankrupt the entire 911 system to carry the wireless," he said.

Seventeen Missouri counties, including Bollinger County, don't have technology to find an individual calling on a land line.

"We're in pretty bad shape. We've got no enhanced 911 and no mapping capabilities," said Jim Bollinger, Bollinger County emergency manager. "Our county has not put forth the money to do it, and it's primarily because we don't have it to spend."

Operating an enhanced 911 system requires two dispatchers and the county can't take on the additional expense, he added.

While the committee is likely to discuss bringing uniformity to the state's 911 systems, Bollinger suggested they also address the situation in the state's most rural counties -- that they're without necessary technology due to declining revenue.

He said he hopes lawmakers can move past the idea that a fee on cellphone users' monthly bills would be a tax.

"Cellphones are our primary communication tool now," he said. "They need to get around this issue of raising taxes."

The committee will be meet four times in the upcoming weeks, according to Gatschenberger, and will submit a recommendation to Tilley by the end of the year. No meeting dates have been announced.

Tilley did not return phone calls to discuss the committee and what would take place following hearing their suggestions.

ehevern@semissourian.com

388-3635

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Jefferson City, MO

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