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911 center funding a statewide issue

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By Leslie Moore

When life changes in an instant, 911 centers provide an essential lifeline to emergency medical services, fire departments and law enforcement personnel.

But statewide, 911 centers and local governments responsible for collecting fees are having to dip into their general funds to make up for a decline in their revenue as more people use cell phones instead of landlines.

Anne Sanders, supervisor of the Campbellsville/Taylor County E-911 Center, said the center receives about 30,000 phone calls a month and dispatches about 2,000 to the appropriate departments, including Campbellsville Police, Campbellsville/Taylor County Fire & Rescue, Campbellsville/Taylor County Emergency Medical Services and Taylor County Sheriff's Office.

Every telecommunicator on staff is certified to give pre-arrival instructions to callers in numerous emergency situations.

Sanders said the center must have at least one person on duty at all times. Their goal is to have two telecommunicators at all times and, depending on the time of day and call volume, there might even be three.

"There's a dollar fee on every landline," Sanders said. "It was put on in 1996 here. And that dollar for every landline goes into the 911 fund and it just helps support us. It helps pay salaries, it helps pay for equipment and anything that we have associated with 911."

In addition to landline fees, the center also receives 70 cents for each cell phone. This fee is regulated by the state, which decides how much money each county receives based on the number of cell phones in service in each zip code.

According to Joe Barrows, executive director of the Kentucky Commercial Mobile Radio Services Board, landline fees range anywhere from 50 cents to $4.50 across the state. He said most counties charge more than $1 and there are just a handful of counties that don't collect 911 fees.

"At the state level, at 70 cents for each cell phone, the case could be made that the wireless world is not paying its share," Barrows said.

Barrows said cell phones place more demands on the overall system when compared to landlines because the technology needed to track the location of cell phones is more advanced. About 70 percent of 911 calls are made from cell phones.

J.D. Chaney, chief governmental affairs officer for Kentucky League of Cities, said 20 years ago, when almost people just had a landline, there would usually be one call made for each emergency situation. 

"Now when you see an accident on the street, you can imagine how many people are calling from their cell phones as they're passing by," Chaney said.

Chaney said this isn't a problem, but it's something 911 centers have to compensate for with more staff and technology.

According to Barrows, state law allows local governments to set 911 fees at whatever rate they see fit. However, he said, increasing landline fees to compensate for budget deficiencies places an unfair burden on the shrinking population of landline users.

"The phenomenon that's happened is that landlines are going the way of the dinosaurs," Barrows said. "People are either not getting or not keeping landline phones."

Taylor County Treasurer Melissa Williams said there are no plans to raise landline fees for local residents and it hasn't been mentioned.

Sanders said the 911 center is running smoothly with combined revenue from landline and cell phone fees as well as funding from the City of Campbellsville and Taylor County Fiscal Court.

"That's always a concern that that money will go down and it does go down as people get rid of their landlines but, as of right now, the city and county are working really well together and supporting us to keep us going," Sanders said.

But according to Barrows, the amount of cell phone fees collected by the Kentucky Commercial Mobile Radio Services Board has remained stagnant for the last three or four years. He said he anticipates a looming crisis in 911 funding.

Chaney said the League of Cities, which represents nearly every city in the state, including Campbellsville, is drafting a bill that will be presented to state legislators during next year's General Assembly session. The bill will propose increasing 911 fees for cell phones to a rate comparable to landline fees.

"Even if you just [add a] cost of living increase, it puts it at a little over a dollar," Chaney said. "Our board is for increasing the wireless phone fees to at least account for that."

According to Chaney, the purpose of the bill is not to raise fees to increase revenue, but to simply replace the revenue that has been lost because of the migration from landlines to cell phones. He is confident local governments will rally behind the bill.

"Access to 911 [centers] is so essential," Chaney said. "You can have the best police department, fire department or emergency medical service in the world, but if you can't access them, then what good does that do?"