The 911 Numbers Game: Finding the Funds You Need to Maintain Emergency Access

Feb. 1, 2005
Barry Furey discusses the fight for dollars that many fire administrators are dealing with, but emphasizes how the problem of adequate funding is more visible than in communities’ 911 centers and public safety answering points (PSAPs).

While firefighters may be identified with the glamorous image of fighting back flames, many fire administrators are faced with the less glamorous task of fighting for dollars. Throughout recent history, there have been municipal budget cuts, layoffs, station closings and reductions in crew strength. This financial phenomenon is not limited to career departments, as volunteer agencies sometimes struggle to raise enough funds to even continue service. With the National League of Cities recently reporting that 60% of all communities nationwide suffer financial difficulties, it should come as no surprise that times are almost universally tight.

Perhaps nowhere is the problem of adequate funding more visible than in our 911 centers and public safety answering points (PSAPs). Because these facilities often operate behind the scenes, their issues are less visible. However, being less visible certainly does not mean less important, as every dispatch and – ultimately the safety of every firefighter – relies upon effective communications.

One of the first issues at hand comes from many public safety interests drawing money from the same pot. While in cooperation in protecting the public, these divisions and departments may actually be at odds during the budget process. For example, the cost of a single radio site may be comparable to that of several new pieces of apparatus or additional personnel. While all three may be needed, communities are faced with making a hard choice. Often, this choice may be influenced by the more concrete nature of brass and chrome and Nomex. Firefighters and fire equipment are visible and exciting and make a presence in the community. Communications systems aren’t, and don’t. In March 2004, voters in St. Clair County, IL, overwhelmingly defeated a proposal to upgrade their public safety radios. Two firehouse construction projects on the ballot easily passed.

Where communications services are provided directly by the fire department, this becomes an in-house struggle. Where they are provided by different agencies of the same municipality, it is a far more public matter. In cases where a consolidated center serves many communities, the water becomes even cloudier. Here, funding formulas must be worked out to appropriately distribute cost of service. This method has traditionally worked; however, when one or more of the agencies involved suffers budgetary shortfalls, there can be a ripple effect throughout the service provider, who now must deal with the loss of revenue from multiple sources. This is further complicated by the fact that many 911 centers cannot generate revenue independently, and are not eligible to compete in grant programs that are specifically earmarked for the fire service.

For example, in Tennessee, most 911 service is provided by emergency communications districts serving specific geographic areas. They cannot tax, but rely almost entirely on service fees attached to monthly telephone bills. The districts have no taxing power and are limited, by law, on how much can be charged to residential and business customers. While 911 calls – especially those generated for cellular telephones – increase, this source of revenue is in a constant decline. As businesses take advantage of other means of communications and homeowners go wireless, funds that were previously available steadily disappear. While this trend affects all 911 providers, smaller communities that depended on a perilously scant number of billable lines to begin with find themselves in crisis mode.

Many states have taken to placing service fees on wireless telephony in an effort to stem this tide. After all, wireless calls make up a significant number – and, in some cases, the majority – of calls made to 911. While helpful, this step may be a case of too little too late. It took government and cellular carriers almost two decades to come to these agreements after much painful wrangling and rewording of 911 legislation to ensure that wireless devices were subject to billing. Even now, however, a large portion of these collections goes not to the PSAP, but to the carrier under “cost recovery” agreements where wireless providers are subsidized for technology and service. And, perhaps nothing has more impact on providing and funding communications than technology, and the pace at which it is changing.

A TV commercial of a few years back showed a happy man driving home with his brand-new computer. He’s all smiles until he sees a crew erecting a billboard advertising an even newer model. While the turnaround time may not be that quick, communications systems place an ever-increasing reliance on computers with a limited shelf life. It is not uncommon to see fire apparatus that are 10, 15 or even 20 or more years old in first-line service. A 1980s computer is likely a 286 or 386 with eight or 16 megabytes of RAM and a hard drive that would not even hold today’s operating system. The digital revolution is also omnipresent in the radio world, with a wholesale migration away from analog systems. By default, communities will have to follow this migration based upon the refarming of channels by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the discontinuance of analog production.

Technology too is determining the manner in which emergency calls are reported. VOIP, or Voice Over Internet Protocol (or Provider) lets a common PC be used as a telephone. Although early attempts at this were clumsy and required proprietary software on both ends, the new generation promises to replace the Ma Bells of the past with the World Wide Web of the future. The FCC also recently passed action that enabled the provision of communications services by electrical utilities.

Both of these scenarios will eventually force municipalities to retool the way that 911 is provided and rethink the way that it is funded. Although the FCC has declared VOIP to be a national rather than a state issue, it did leave the door open for the imposition of fees. Currently, neither of these options contains mechanisms to financially support 911 service, and it is obvious that we will not have the luxury of waiting almost 20 years for a solution, as we did with wireless. Even there, our work remains incomplete.

In its last day of service, the 108th Congress passed the “Enhance 911” (Ensuring Needed Help Arrives Near Callers Employing 911) Act, which provides, among other things, $2.5 million a year for the next five years for the installation and operation of Enhanced wireless 911. Since most U.S. communities still cannot pinpoint the location of cellular callers, this legislation, while still a victory for public safety, will be hard pressed to even address all of the deficiencies within this singular aspect of our reporting network.

While it is clear that 911 will remain the nationwide emergency number for years to come, it is also clear that without a major overhaul of the manner in which it is funded, the true emergency will exist on the 911 end of the telephone. Without a financial model that addresses rapid technology changes and increased demands for service, 911 centers will be in need of help, without any emergency number of their own to call.

Barry Furey, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is executive director of the Knox County, TN, Emergency Communications District. He is an ex-chief of the Valley Cottage, NY, Fire Department, ex-deputy chief of the Harvest, AL, Volunteer Fire Department and a former training officer for the Savoy, IL, Fire Department. Furey is past president of the Tennessee chapter of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) and former chair of the APCO Homeland Security Task Force. He also was conference chair for the 2002 APCO International Conference in Nashville.


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