Emergency dispatchers facing technology that raises new questions

Friday, July 6, 2007

By Clint Confehr

Senior Staff Writer

Emergency communication systems are facing new challenges as more and more Americans don't have an ordinary home phone. Reliance on a cellphone only is increasing. So is "voice over IP," or Internet protocol for making phone calls through a home computer.

"And dispatchers are beginning to receive text messages at the 911 center," Marshall County Emergency Management Agency Director Bob Hopkins said recently while reviewing the county's 911 budget that's funded by fees paid by telephone system subscribers. "The potential for problems is there."

Technical problems to locate a cell phone used to call 911 have been overcome, but communications system managers are lining up for training sessions on what's to be done if a call comes in from someone using a computer instead of a telephone.

"That's an issue when you have to decipher the location of a call," Hopkins said.

Voice over IP has been an inexpensive way for families to stay in contact when, for example, a spouse, son or daughter is in the military overseas. Familiarity with that way to make phone calls, therefore, is growing.

"Voice over IP is going to affect our budget in the future," Hopkins said.

Technological advancements are "coming at us like a freight train" he said. "And, we're attending every seminar that we can go to." Training for dispatchers is also sought, Hopkins said.

"We put a lot of money in the budget for dispatcher training to be ready for things like this," he said.

New issues are realized as on the horizon "every time we go to another convention," he said.

As emergency officials are taking steps to be prepared in the future, Hopkins reviewed the emergency communications budget for this fiscal year that started on Sunday.

"It's a lot lower," he said of the budget. "The reason is we had a lot of equipment to buy with all the moves" that are complete now.

New and refurbished facilities are in use by the Sheriff's Department and Lewisburg Police. The ambulance service has and is getting new quarters.

Money budgeted for the 911 system during the fiscal year that ended on Saturday totaled $349,113, Hopkins said. The fiscal year that started Sunday has a budget totaling $277,000, he said.

Much of the spending is on telephone bills. Another big part is for leased equipment. And the phone bill went up from $52,000 to $56,000. Rent for the equipment is $78,580 both years.

While the 911 system budget is funded through fees paid for phone service, the system's budget is approved by the county commissioners as their annual budget is set each summer.

The shift in use of home phones to cell phones is reflected in a step taken by state officials.

Nearly $14 million is to be distributed after a lengthy review of the way user fees are paid by telephone subscribers, according to County News, a newspaper published by the Tennessee County Services Association.

Local E911 district boards have depended largely on 911 fees paid by subscribers to so-called "land line" phone services plus some 25 percent of the fees paid by subscribers to wireless phones, County News reported this spring.

The Tennessee Emergency Communications Board has also started grant programs and reimbursement for new equipment. New disbursements take into account stagnating or declining numbers of customers for land line phones.

Marshall County was recommended to receive $86,169 in grants from the state E911 Board, reports County News.

"The additional funding will supplement decreasing land line revenues and allow 911 professionals to make necessary upgrades to their operations," said Lynn Questrell, executive director of the state's emergency communications board, according to the association's newspaper.

Tennessee remains one of the few states to fully implement wireless E911 (Enhanced 911,)" County News reports, quoting the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.

For every dollar paid in fees by wireless phone customers 75-cents has been kept by the state board and 25-cents is distributed to the local E911 Districts, according to Jimmy Adams, director of the Emergency Medical Service.