E-911 is expensive

By Mike Kroll

It is something we simply take for granted today, but the 911 emergency telephone number is really a relatively recent phenomenon. While you can trace the origin to a British implementation back in 1937 (where a London resident reported a burglary in progress by calling 999) it wasn’t until 1968 that 911 was first announced as the single emergency public safety telephone number for AT&T’s owned and operated phone systems. Interestingly, in nearly every country that has established a single emergency telephone number for police, fire and emergency medical assistance it has been at the urging of the fire service.

Today 911 is an enhanced service that goes far beyond simply providing an easy-to-remember single telephone number of public safety emergencies. When you dial 911 from any telephone in Knox County your call goes to the 911 center located in the Galesburg Public Safety Building where the dispatcher is able to immediately access a wealth of information about the originating telephone number including its geographic location. This dispatcher can then ascertain what type of emergency you are reporting and directly send police, fire or ambulance assistance anywhere within the county.

This service may be taken for granted but it surely is not cheap. The people, equipment and facilities that make this possible are hugely expensive and paid in two ways. Knox County, the City of Galesburg and Galesburg Hospitals Ambulance Service each pay for a relative share of the communications costs of the system. At the present time none of the other police, fire or emergency medical units across Knox County are making direct payments toward the emergency communications system.

Additionally, every telephone line in the county is assessed a "911 surcharge of $1.25 per month, and this now includes cell phones. According to Schlaf this falls pretty much in the middle of similar fees across the state. "The highest I know of is $2.50 and the lowest is about 95 cents but many of the low fee areas have been experiencing financial shortfalls." The communications fees cover a wide range of system costs but this 911 telephone surcharge is principally used to purchase and maintain the necessary equipment. Last year this surcharge generated $445,795 and $1.144 million was spent to significantly upgrade the system according to records in the Knox County Treasurer’s office.

"Last year we conducted a planned update of our computerized systems, something we had been saving funds toward doing for a number of years," explained Galesburg Police Chief John Schlaf. Schlaf also directs the 911 system. "Originally budgeted as about a $830,000 project we purchased and implemented an integrated computer aided dispatching system for both 911 and communications. This was on top of the regular annual equipment costs borne by the 911 board as we seek to ensure that every public safety agency in this county has the necessary communications tools. Part of that expenditure last year was of a half million dollars we borrowed while much of it was from our savings; I understand that it looks a little peculiar to spend three times as much as we brought in last year."

The 911 system has always maintained a substantial savings according to Schlaf. "We try to always keep a reserve to insure that we would have the funds available if something unexpectedly needed to be replaced." According to the Knox County Treasurer’s office the 911 system has over a million dollars either in checking accounts or investments right now. The 911 system receives nearly all of the $1.25 telephone surcharge from regular telephone lines with a small portion being kept by the various telephone companies as a "collection fee."

It is a different story with respect to the much more recently enacted 911 surcharge on cellular telephone service across Illinois. Collection of the wireless 911 fee is handled by the state and they keep the majority of the proceeds; Schlaf says that locally we only receive 47 cents out of each $1.25 wireless 911 fee. This is not an insignificant distinction as it may foretell future funding problems for the local 911 system according to Schlaf. Not only does the income from wireless phones pale by comparison to regular telephones the state is also characteristically months behind in paying local 911 systems, over four months right now.

Schlaf also notes that while he doesn’t have any hard figures it is his belief that the move toward greater cell phone use has also meant a decrease in the number of regular telephone lines, particularly in Galesburg. "It is a real financial issue for our system if the number of lines paying the surcharge decreases markedly whether due to conversion to cell phones or population loss and we have to follow the trends closely."

The 911 funds have been used to significantly upgrade the communications capabilities of emergency agencies across Knox County. "Before the advent of the 911 board many of the smaller agencies had few radios and many dated back to post-war surplus equipment," noted Schlaf. "It was virtually impossible for different agencies to communicate with one another and in some significant areas of the county there simply was no radio coverage at all. Correcting these deficiencies was one of the first tasks we took on after getting the basic 911 service operational. As a general rule we have tried to focus our 911 spending on equipment and systems rather than operational costs. Today there are some personnel costs covered by 911 funds but we have minimized this."

Today every public safety agency within Knox County can communicate not only with dispatchers in the Public Safety Building but directly with other agencies over their mobile radios. All of the vehicles have both UHF and VHF radios enabling them to communicate with most any other public safety agency even outside of Knox County. The 911 system has worked with volunteer fire departments and police agencies to help fund radios, emergency pagers, and radio towers across the county. According to Knox County Sheriff Jim Thompson today there are very few areas of the county where his deputies cannot maintain radio contact, a big improvement over the past.

The enhanced 911 system now in place allows the dispatchers much greater control over how they direct emergency aide to incidents in Galesburg or across the county. The computer aided dispatching system that has been installed to integrate a range of functions that once were done separately. For example, every Galesburg Police car now has a GPS device that radios the car’s position to the dispatchers on a regular basis enabling the positions of all cars to be displayed on a computerized map of the city. The sheriff says that his deputies will have the same systems installed in all of their cars "by the end of 2004." Only a few county cars currently have the capability.

Thompson notes that emergency communications equipment goes beyond just radios. "Mobile data terminals are a great asset to law enforcement and I hope to eventually have one in every unit. Today most of our cars have them and all of the Galesburg police units do. These terminals not only provide a lot of information directly to the officer on scene but they also reduce the already crushing workload on the dispatchers and provide a level of tactical security as well."

Thompson joins Schlaf in praising the quality of the 911 dispatching staff. "One of the biggest challenges is finding really good dispatchers; and when you find them you really hate to lose them. It is a rare person who can really excel at that job. They are really behind-the-scene heroes who just don’t get the recognition they deserve. It is not a job I think I could handle quite frankly."

With all the budgetary stress falling on local government it should not be surprising that while Thompson praises the performance of the 911 dispatching system he laments the high costs his department must absorb to continue participating. "Right now the city, GHAS and the county are the only public safety operations contributing directly toward the operational costs of this system and it has become a huge part of my budget. It would really help our department if two changes could be made: first begin using more of the 911 surcharge money toward operational costs and second start asking that the remaining public safety agencies across the county help pick up their fair share of the costs."