Money, Technology Concerns Threaten 911 Center Operations

Officials in Beaver County, Pa., say that if legislation increasing the 911 surcharge for wireless devices doesn't pass, emergency services would be impacted.

by Kristen Doerschner / April 22, 2014

Rapidly changing technology, along with stagnant surcharges that are about to disappear entirely, could create a financial emergency for Beaver County’s 911 center.

County officials met with local legislators Monday at the Emergency Services Center in Ambridge to discuss concerns about pending legislation that would increase the 911 surcharge for wireless devices from $1 a month to $2 a month. The legislation, House Bill 1578, was introduced in June 2013 and has remained in committee since its introduction.

The existing wireless surcharge is set to expire at the end of June, so time is of the essence for local governments that depend on the money the surcharge generates.

Beaver County Emergency Services Director Wes Hill said if the increase doesn’t pass this year and expires altogether, there could be a “crisis” that would mean reducing services.

The county currently receives about $300,000 a year in surcharges from wireless phones and another $1 million in surcharges from landline phones. The county’s total annual budget is between $2 million and $3 million, Hill said. The center currently employs about 50 people between administrators and dispatchers.

“These are one of those fees for one of the services taxpayers are going to accept,” Commissioner Tony Amadio said. “I have no reservation mentioning that or saying that.”

Amadio said people want to know that if their house is on fire, firefighters will respond, or that if someone is having a heart attack, an ambulance will be dispatched.

Commissioner Dennis Nichols likened 911 to an insurance policy in that people may not think much about it until something happens. If there’s a disaster and the county can’t provide a response, “we’re all going to catch it,” he said.

The way the proposed legislation stands, $1 of the surcharge would be paid by the wireless provider and $1 would be paid by the customer. Hill said there has been pushback from the wireless providers, and issues with the providers giving 911 centers accurate information about the number of customers using their service, so 911 centers can’t ensure the proper funds are collected.

Adding to the concerns, Hill said the legislation has never been structured to accommodate changing technology and the costs associated with it. The initial legislation regarding the 911 surcharge was passed in 1990 and applied only to landline phones, and the fee has not increased in the past 24 years.

“We’ve lived on that act since it was put into place,” Hill said.

State Sen. Tim Solobay, D-46, Canonsburg, said language could be added to the bill to address the changing technology for the future.

Tweet Your Emergency?

Hill said 911 centers are going to be expected to take emergency calls for help via text and forms of social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Employees would have to be added to monitor those sites, he said.

The centers are supposed to be able to take texts by the end of the year, but Hill said that is impossible with the current equipment.

Hill said if increased surcharges aren’t in place to update the 911 center’s technology to accommodate the new forms of communication, the cost will fall back on the taxpayers.

Aside of the monetary cost, there are more concerns about contacting 911 through other avenues.

Randy Dawson, deputy director of the county’s emergency services department, said the concept of texting 911 arose from the Virginia Tech shooting when no calls got to 911, but text messages were going out. Dawson said there are concerns about being able to identify the location of someone texting or using social media in addition the time it would take to process those communications.

Nicholson said he wouldn’t think to use Twitter or Facebook to contact 911 in an emergency. He said everyone is being led down a path by the wireless technology industry that wants to sell a product.

State Rep. Jim Christiana, R-15, Beaver, said he could understand the possible need to text 911, such as a situation in which someone may be hiding in a closet during an emergency. However, Christiana said, “No one in their right mind, no matter how young they are, is going to go to Twitter or Facebook to contact 911 during an emergency.”

Hill said it’s a nationwide issue, not just something being considered in Beaver County or even Pennsylvania.

Christiana said a “keeping up with the Joneses mentality” is something that has a significant financial impact. Christiana said necessities need to be covered. He also questioned how fees would be collected from social media platforms that are currently free to use.

“I don’t think we know,” said Eric Brewer, deputy director of the county’s emergency services department.

“You guys determine where this is going to go,” Nicholson told the legislators. He encouraged them to pass legislation to increase the fees by the June deadline.

Hill said there have been talks within Region 13, a coalition of emergency services in western Pennsylvania counties, to create regional 911 centers that could result in a large cost savings to the communities.

© 2014 the Beaver County Times (Beaver, Pa.)