Urgent Matters

The notion of dropping 911 service is unthinkable—or should be

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Residents of Taney County, Mo., will take to the polls next Tuesday to vote on a sales-tax hike that could determine whether the county continues to provide 911 service long-term. Hopefully, they will opt to fund 911, because it is a critical function of government.

Residents of Taney County, Mo., will take to the polls next Tuesday to vote on a sales-tax hike that could determine whether the county continues to provide 911 service long-term.

According to a news story published last week, Taney County 911 will be $150,000 in the red by the end of 2015, if another revenue source isn’t found. County officials hope the answer is the proposed quarter-cent sales-tax increase.

I spoke with National Emergency Number Association (NENA) officials yesterday about this; none could recall another instance where a jurisdiction dropped its 911 service. But Barbara Jaeger, 911 administrator for the state of Arizona and NENA’s immediate past president, said that jurisdictions occasionally scale back their service—from Phase 2 to Phase 1, or from Phase 1 to Phase 0—in response to fiscal pressures.

Arizona officials were contemplating such a maneuver a few years ago, until officials convinced the state’s telecommunications providers to cease charging public-safety answering points for the provisioning of 911 services, Jaeger said.

“We were going from Phase 2 back to Phase 1, because we didn’t have the money,” Jaeger said. “But we explained the circumstances to the wireless provider, which then decided not to charge us. They made a business case that 911 is an essential service and that they needed to provide it.”

If the Taney County sales-tax hike fails and officials follow through on pulling the plug on 911 services, residents won’t be completely out of luck, according to Jaeger. Workarounds exist, such as for wireline and wireless telecommunications providers to automatically forward any 911 call to a 10-digit number at one of the public-safety agencies.

But there are a few problems with such an approach. First and foremost, there would be no location information. That would be particularly problematic in Taney County, because it is home to the resort city of Branson, which attracts thousands of visitors year round. These visitors might have trouble identifying their location for call-takers.

Another problem is that the agency taking the call might not be the responding agency; for instance, if the emergency call has been forwarded to the police department, but the emergency involves a structure fire, then the police department would have to transfer the call to the fire department. Not only would that cost precious time, but a lot can go wrong during such transfers. Imagine if the call was inadvertently disconnected, and the victim had to call back and start the process all over again.

So, the best option for Taney County would be that residents pass the sales-tax hike. A quarter of a penny doesn’t seem like a very big deal to me—on $10,000 worth of purchases, the tab would come to $25. I find it interesting that people don’t balk at paying their garbage pick-up bills—they just accept it as a requirement of living where they do—but they mull long and hard about paying for a service that someday might save their lives.

That said, it strikes me as goofy that Taney County is in this predicament in the first place. I agree wholeheartedly with what Trey Forgety, NENA’s government affairs director told me yesterday: while the citizenry has the right to decide whether it wants to pay for certain government services, governments have an obligation to provide 911 service.

“In the constitution of the United States, and nearly every state, providing for public safety is a key role for government—it is a core function of government and always has been. … We ought to be able to agree that, at a minimum, maintaining adequate public safety, including emergency communications, is a critical function of government that should remain a critical function of government,” Forgety said.

Next: An idea to address 911 funding issues nationally.

Discuss this Blog Entry 4

jdb
on Oct 31, 2013

I agree with Mr. Forgety's assessment. The safety of it's citizens is the first job of any government. Providing those basic services must be accounted for in any jurisdictions budget first and foremost, before any other considerations. Therefore, I believe it should be mandatory that a jurisdiction cannot be allowed to spend anything, not one penny, until that is provided for in the budget. There is never a need for a tax levy to support these functions. It is a bare minimum duty to provide this. And if there is a short fall, everything else must be shut down completely before taking anything away from this responsibility.

Lima Echo Sierra (not verified)
on Nov 1, 2013

The issue is as folks rid themselves of landlines in favor of cellphones Taney County is loosing it's tax base for 911 services as Missouri is the only state that does not tax cell phone users for 911 emergency services. I'm speculating that other counties in the state are facing the same issue so why don't they confront the state to change the current taxing method.

doug baker (not verified)
on Nov 1, 2013

The state of Missouri has gone to the voters twice 1999 and 2002 with state wide 911 initatives. Both times it has failed miserably. The majority of the counties in Missouri that have 911 use sales tax. 20 counties in Missouri have no 911 at all.

G Carttar (not verified)
on Nov 1, 2013

I live in Taney County and am a Firefighter. I have been on the street in the last few days talking to people who have "VOTE NO On 911 Tax!" signs in their yards.
Best comments so far:
"Hell, I got insurance, let it burn down"
"What are all them 911 vehicles doin' drivin' up and down the road all the time. Just wastin' money! That's what."
"They'll come up with somethin'. They have to."

We're doomed.

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Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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