COLUMBIA — Before cell phones were in wide use in the U.S., a driver who spotted an accident might have rushed to the nearest pay phone to call for help.
These days, with almost 300 million Americans* using cell phones, the response is very different.
The group formed in 2009 after a statewide meeting of 911 directors.
The state is broken down into nine regions, each with a representative on the group's executive board.
The main positions are:
- President - Lisa Schlottach, operations manager of Gasconade County E-911
- Vice President - Stephen Hoskins, Kansas City Police Department Communications
- Secretary - Amy Ellard, assistant director of Warren County 911
- Treasurer - Becky Leake, director of Ralls County 911
The group put together a website, Save911.org, to educate Missouri residents and lawmakers on issues faced by 911 services, which includes increasing calls from growing populations, decreasing budgets from citizens using cell phones over landlines and insufficient funding to replace deteriorating equipment.
“You used to only have one or two people calling about an accident,” said Zim Schwartze, director of Columbia and Boone County Public Safety Joint Communications. “Now, you have 10 to 15 calls about the same crash from cell phones.”
It's good for a quick response, but not so great for 911 operations, whose staffs haven't been able to grow along with the proliferation of cell phones.
Unlike most states, Missouri doesn't have some kind of funding mechanism to help defray the cost of emergency wireless calls, whether it's a surcharge on wireless customers' bills or a tax on wireless companies. With budgets decreasing and workloads increasing, an organization comprising most of Missouri's 911 directors is trying to bring the state up to national standards.
The Missouri 911 Directors Association, created last year, wrote legislation for the last legislative session — Senate Bill 966 — that would have taxed wireless companies and helped fund 911 systems throughout the state.
But it was defeated in the Senate by strong opposition from wireless companies and Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau.
The directors association plans to give it another shot next year.
"We are trying to gain as much support as we can before Senate opens again," said Lisa Schlottach, operations manager of Gasconade County's 911 service and head of the new association. "We will hit it hard again at the beginning of their session."
Columbia: Call waiting
The City of Columbia and Boone County Joint Communications is the main dispatch center for seven counties and 10 agencies, including the Columbia Police Department and Boone County Fire Department.
Boone County's increasing population — from 135,454 in the 2000 census to 156,377 in 2009 — has contributed to an increase not only in the number of emergencies, but in the size of fire, law enforcement and medical agencies that rely on Joint Communications.
And then there's all of us with our cell phones.
Wireless callers now make up 65 percent of 911 calls coming into the department, Schwartze said, compared to 39 percent in 2003 — a shift that has not been reflected in funding.
“With cell phones, there is no tax, tariff or fee anywhere associated with wireless carriers,” Schwartze said. "Landlines carry the burden of the cost in the state of Missouri."
The National Emergency Number Association estimated in 2008 that nearly 20 percent of all U.S. households rely on wireless as their primary service, a number that has since risen. In Missouri, that means households are switching to wireless and no longer paying fees for 911, yet still using the service.
That's taking place against a backdrop of declining budgets for 911 over the past 10 years.
“Everyone around us has increased (in size), but we have not,” Schwartze said.
Joint Communications has added two operators in the past 10 years, but the agencies that use 911 in Boone County have also grown in that time, and the service hasn’t been able to keep up with the workload, Schwartze said. Many of Joint Communication's 27 operators have to work overtime, which is hard on the service's budget.
According to data Schwartze presented at the Columbia City Council's retreat in June, in 2009 Joint Communications operators:
- received 70,288 total 911 calls from citizens;
- received 229,927 calls from agencies such as the Columbia Fire Department and Boone County Sheriff's Department;
- made 60,629 calls to agencies.
That's a total of 360,844 calls. With five operators working at one time, many nonemergency calls have to be put on hold, Schwartze said, and the growth of Joint Communications' member agencies has led to a need for either more operators or less phone traffic.
Schwartze said she recently sent an e-mail to the service's agencies asking them to try to relieve Joint Communications of calls any way they can.
Tony St. Romaine, assistant city manager for Columbia, said he does not think Joint Communications will get money to hire more operators because of the struggling economy. St. Romaine said that the city government only added a few positions citywide in 2009 instead of the usual 15 to 20.
"The hope is that (educating both emergency officials and the public) will help reduce those nonemergency calls and free them up for their main purpose of public safety," St. Romaine said.
Columbia and Boone County are not alone in feeling the sting of too few operators and too many callers.
Michael Arnold, director of Miller County 911, said he has had to lay people off and has not been able to replace old equipment. Sixty percent of the Miller County's 911 calls come from cell phones.
"Our staff is pushed to the limit and the lowest paid in the region," Arnold said. "We don't have the money to upgrade equipment, either. We can't do anything about it because we have no funding."
Arnold said he is worried that 911 centers around the state are going to have to shut down unless legislation is passed to help fund them.
Gasconade County's Schlottach was concerned that without money for the appropriate technology, 911 agencies would not be able to trace the locations of wireless callers in rural Missouri, leading to confusion and slow response times for responders.
Frustrated by the shrinking budget and understaffing at her agency last year, Schlottach organized a statewide meeting for 911 directors in Missouri in 2009.
“I was having issues in my area and I found out that everyone was having the same problems,” Schlottach said. “Michigan had put together the Michigan 911 Directors Association, and I thought, ‘Missouri needs to do something like this.'”
More than 80 different agencies are now represented in the Missouri 911 Directors Association, including Columbia and Boone County Public Safety Joint Communications. The directors gathered in October 2009 and discussed the problems their agencies are facing.
The group later proposed a bill to charge wireless companies a tax to fund 911 systems across the state. Wireless companies would charge customers a tax between 25 cents and one dollar on their monthly wireless bill to pay for the tax.
Defeated by the opposition
“We went to the hearing for this bill, and it was a big joke to be honest,” Schlottach said.
After the bill's failure, she said she became frustrated with the legislative process.
"It's just like beating your head up against the wall," she said.
One of the bill's vocal opponents was Senator Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, who did not return multiple calls for comment.
In a February 2009 Associated Press story, Crowell said he thinks taxpayers deserve a more efficient 911 system and that he would prefer consolidation down to five call centers — one in each quadrant of the state and one in the center — instead of having 174 individual call centers in the *state's 114 counties and the city of St. Louis.
"You're never, ever going to get the money until you consolidate," Crowell told Cape Girardeau County 911 officials, according to the AP report. "I'll force you. I'll starve you down to it, if you're not going to do it of your own free will."
According to campaign disclosure forms from the Missouri Ethics Commission, Crowell received an estimated $5,000 in campaign contributions from cellular and telecommunication companies when he ran for the state senate in 2008.
In August 2009, Sen. John Griesheimer, R-Washington, failed to pass a similar 911 bill in the Senate. He was particularly frustrated by the lack of money to get call-tracing technology for emergency calls from mobile phones.
"It is ridiculous that nothing has been done and that we do not have that capability now," he said.
He added, "It could mean the difference between life and death."
Until the 2011 legislative session
If re-elected, Barnitz said he plans to sponsor the bill again in the 2011 legislative session, and the Missouri 911 Directors Association hopes to make a stronger showing in the next Senate session.
Schlottach said the association wants to gain support from other agencies such as the Missouri chapter of the National Emergency Number Association and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials to gain clout in the Senate. Schlottach said the association is also trying to meet with wireless companies and come to an agreement on a tax for 911 services.
Joint Communication's Schwartze said Barnitz's bill would benefit everyone.
“I don’t understand opposition when we are talking about people’s safety," Schwartze said.