Region's 911 centers need upgrades to keep up with wireless technology [The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review :: ]
(Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) April 20--The next generation of wireless devices will enable users to text or tweet 911, but emergency service centers won't be able to receive those messages without expensive upgrades, and the state has an outdated, "horse and buggy" system for paying 911 costs, officials said.
"It's a little bit scary, because we're not sure what's going to happen," said Steve Bicehouse, director of Butler County Emergency Services. "There's a lot of uncertainty. The dollars have been disappearing."
The Federal Communications Commission wants wireless companies to provide customers the capability to text emergency messages to 911 centers by the end of the year, although it is up to each call center to decide whether and when to begin accepting those calls.
The FCC can't order the 911 centers to upgrade their technology, it said, because the agency doesn't regulate call centers.
Locally, only Westmoreland County said it could begin accepting texts sometime in the summer. Other local emergency services directors said upgrades will cost millions of dollars, and they are not sure of a timetable.
From 60 percent to 75 percent of emergency calls come from cellphones, 911 call centers said. The formula that provides emergency call centers public funding doesn't reflect the shift from land lines to wireless devices.
This compares to a "horse and buggy tax to pay for roads," said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. Without an overhaul, Fitzgerald said, the county could be forced to turn dispatching and call-taking duties back to local municipalities or bill them for the services.
"(The Legislature) has to do something. They have to deal with it," Fitzgerald said.
Land-line customers pay a monthly 911 surcharge of $1.25 per phone. That money goes directly to county 911 centers.
Cellphone customers pay a $1 surcharge each month that goes to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. Counties can ask for a portion of it, but critics said this leads to competition and unequal distribution of funds.
Butler County asked for $1.8 million last year, Bicehouse said, but received about $800,000, with county commissioners making up the difference. Beaver County asked for about $1 million, said Wes Hill, director of Emergency Services, but only got about half that.
"The funding isn't bringing enough money in to support everybody's wants and needs," he said.
Allegheny County handles more than 1.3 million emergency and non-emergency calls a year. Spokeswoman Amie Downs said the county expects to have to make up a $6 million shortfall in 911 funding this year.
The cellphone surcharge is set to expire at the end of June. A proposal introduced in the state Senate on Thursday would extend that deadline for a year, giving legislators time to work on a longer-term fix.
Beaver County is hosting a meeting with regional legislators on Monday to discuss the changing technology and funding needed to implement those changes.
"Even if they extend it for a year, they're still not going to have enough money to fix it the way the technology will demand it will be done," Hill said.
According to a 2012 state Legislative Budget and Finance Committee report, the state collected about $115 million in wireless surcharges, the most recent number available.
Seventy percent of the money can go to salaries and related costs, with the rest used only for equipment directly related to wireless technology.
Wireless calls accounted for 66 percent of the 257,000 calls into Washington's 911 center in 2013, said Jeffrey Yates, director of Washington County Public Safety.
"Years ago, if there was a wreck on the highway, you'd be lucky to get one call," Yates said. "Now, you get seven, eight or more."
Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Washington, said legislation could look at expanding the 911 surcharge to any device that could contact 911 centers, such as tablets.
Bill Vidonic is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media.
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