911 funding, organization should be higher priority for Missouri safety

Monday, March 11, 2019

When it comes to 911 service, Missouri takes a scattershot approach.

Some areas of the state have much better service than others. A 2017 report from the Department of Public Safety and the Missouri 911 Service Board said a "lack of statewide 911 coordination, and a statewide 911 network leave Missouri with a fragmented system."

In some areas of the state, for instance, a dispatcher might not be able to track down your location if you're calling from a cellphone. This is the case particularly in rural areas, where funding is more limited. Sixteen of Missouri's 114 counties, including Bollinger, only have basic 911 services, according to a recent story by reporter Marybeth Niederkorn. Basic 911 is the lowest level of 911 service permissible under federal law. Dispatchers receive only a number, not a name or location when the call arrives. Other areas of the state can track down specific locations of cellphone calls, and even receive text messages.

The lack of statewide direction in the state's 911 systems is compounded by a patchwork of systems and funding mechanisms. Many counties, including Cape Girardeau, are seeing dwindling resources because of how the tax is applied. In 1991, voters enacted a 911 tax, but that was applied only to landline phones, not cellphones. Many households today operate exclusively with cellphone or digital service.

In 2007, revenue was $579,000 to operate 911 in the county. In 2017, that dropped to $366,000. Expenses in 2017 were $528,000.

Many counties are faced with this dilemma. Seeing no statewide solution in sight, many jurisdictions have been collaborating, combining resources, eliminating dispatch centers and creating new ones with partners. The funding problems and the corresponding collaborations have exposed the idea that maybe our state has had too many dispatch centers, and having fewer of them could save money.

Collaborating and combining operations is an efficient and prudent move; especially when jurisdictions are on the same page. The local agencies are moving in ways necessitated by funding lapses and are to be commended, but this approach on a bigger scale furthers the possibility of leaving rural areas behind. Systems are not the same from one place to another, and may not even be able to transfer one call to another jurisdiction that uses older equipment. And while rural areas might have fewer residents, traffic may be heavy in these areas on interstate or four-lane highways, used by motorists who may be from out of the area and unaware of specific whereabouts in the case of an emergency.

As for Cape Girardeau County, the City of Jackson has agreed to share the capital cost of a central dispatch center to be located in the sheriff's office. The total cost of the new center will be about $300,000, and both will pay half of that.

Missouri is behind the times when it comes to funding and the organization of 911 statewide. The local counties and cities are doing what they must to keep 911 going. Better funding mechanisms need to be found, but better orchestration of standards, systems and organization for 911 services should become a bigger priority for the State of Missouri.

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