LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - An increase in emergency calls from cell
phones over the past two years has overwhelmed some 911 centers in
Kentucky, and funding for the centers isn't keeping up with the new
workload.
The centers funded with revenue from surcharges added to
telephone bills, and surcharges are usually higher for landline
phones than for cell phones.
In some Kentucky counties, officials say they have seen
increases of 40 percent or more in emergency 911 calls, which they
attribute to the increase in the number of cell phones being used.
With people switching from traditional landline phones to using
only cell phones in some areas, the 911 centers face the problem of
handling more work with less money, The Courier-Journal reported in
Sunday's editions.
The General Assembly will examine the adequacy of funding for
emergency call centers when it reconvenes in January.
The high volume of calls can be a problem when someone with a
serious medical emergency tries to reach operators who are swamped,
for example, with a dozen cell calls about a single fender-bender.
Operators answer every call as quickly as they can and then try to
determine which need priority attention.
"Everyone's emergency is an emergency to them, so you have to
pick the most severe," said Sam Bard, president of the Kentucky
Emergency Number Association.
Eventually, emergency calls could go unanswered in some places
if funding for the 911 centers doesn't keep pace with the
increasing volume, officials say.
"Cell phones are giving every call center across Kentucky more
work to do," and the revenue isn't covering the cost, said Bard.
So far, operators haven't reported problems in getting emergency
information to police, fire and emergency medical crews because of
the cell phone overload, but they worry that it could happen.
Kentucky's cell phone surcharge, set by the General Assembly and
put into effect in August 1998, is 70 cents a month. Landline
surcharges, authorized by the legislature in 1984 with the amount
set locally, range from 66 cents to $3.50 a month.
Some 95 percent of landline surcharges go to the 911 centers,
but the centers get only about half of the cell phone surcharges,
and use of the cell phone money is restricted to equipment
upgrades. The funding cannot be spent on operational expenses;
landline surcharge revenues don't have that restriction.
Emergency operators in 60 of Kentucky's 120 counties have the
technology to answer cellular 911 calls.
Dick Bartlett, executive administrator of the
Louisville-Jefferson County Emergency Management Agency, said
landline phone use is leveling out in Jefferson County, causing
call center revenues to flatten.
Bartlett said his operators were getting "literally hundreds"
of inadvertent 911 calls a day from cell phones - enough to prompt
a meeting with Louisville-area cellular carriers, who agreed to
turn off the automatic 911 dialing feature in newer phones unless
customers specifically request the feature.
Central City in Muhlenberg County hopes to begin installing
cellular 911 equipment next year, said Sherry Osteen, a supervisor
for the county 911 center. Those calls are now routed through the
Madisonville state police post.
"We could serve the community a lot better if we could take the
phone calls direct," Osteen said, citing a recent communications
mix-up about a transformer fire that sent emergency crews to the
wrong place.
As it turned out, the fire was inside a Kentucky Utilities
plant. "They had a $1 million turbine go down because of
misinformation," Osteen said. "If we had received the call
directly, maybe things would have been different."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press