Lawmakers consider funding boost for Missouri 911

Saturday, March 29, 2014 | 5:28 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — If you use a cellphone to get an ambulance in Kansas City, emergency responders should be able to identify your location. But if you call for help while canoeing on the Current River in southern Missouri, rescuers likely would need your help to find you.

Officials want to eliminate the latter scenario and bolster a 911 system that in some areas is lagging.

State lawmakers this year are advancing legislation that would establish a 3 percent charge on sales of prepaid wireless devices and offer another option for local officials to fund their 911 systems.

"We expect 911 service across the state when we're driving through some areas that aren't well populated and touring state parks or national parks," Sen. Wayne Wallingford said. "We think we're going to be covered for our location, and we're not."

Capabilities for handling emergency calls now vary. For example, counties around Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield can identify the latitude and longitude of a caller who seeks help using a cellphone. Some other counties cannot track where cellphone calls originate. And in some places, 911 calls come in like other phone calls, so the person answering the phone does not necessarily immediately know that they are receiving an emergency call.

A Senate committee this past week held a hearing on 911 legislation, and the House approved a bill earlier this month. Wallingford, R-Cape Girardeau, and Rep. Jeanie Lauer, R-Blue Springs, are sponsoring the measures.

Under the proposal, counties could levy a new monthly fee on devices capable of using the 911 network. Local officials currently can assess a sales tax or charge a fee on landline telephones that officials say is drying up as more people only use cellphones. The new fee would require local voter approval and be capped at $1.50. Counties could not assess multiple charges simultaneously.

The statewide fee in the legislation would be assessed for prepaid devices with the proceeds going toward poison control and 911.

Supporters estimate it could bring in about $7 million annually. Of that, 10 percent or up to $1 million per year would go to poison control. Another 25 percent to 50 percent would be returned to counties based on sales of prepaid devices there. The Missouri 911 Service Board would use the remaining funds to award grants and loans for implementing 911 services, promoting consolidation, mapping, ensuring access for the disabled, and other needs.

The state board also would report to the governor and lawmakers every five years about the status of 911 in Missouri and complete a survey at least every five years, evaluating the possibility for improved services, coordination and consolidation.

Supporters of the legislation say 32 states have implemented a similar prepaid charge. The 911 legislation is backed by groups that represent law enforcement, fire chiefs, ambulance districts, cities, counties and social workers.

"Public safety has a broken link in the chain, and it's 911," said Lisa Schlottach, Missouri 911 Directors Association president.

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