Public safety director calls for cell phone fee for 911

Tuesday, August 7, 2007 | 12:34 p.m. CDT; updated 2:43 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, June 24, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — The state’s public safety director advocated Monday for imposing a 75-cent fee on cell phone customers to improve the state’s 911 service for wireless calls.

The director spoke to a special legislative committee looking into problems with 911 service in Missouri.

Eighteen counties in Missouri — about 16 percent - lack local 911 service on landline phones. Tracking cell phone calls is even spottier.

Half of Missouri’s counties lack the ability to track cell phone callers’ locations at all. Only 20 statewide can pinpoint a caller’s location, while some can find a general area.

Missouri is the only state without a statewide fee or tax for wireless 911 service. Voters have twice rejected ballot measures to raise taxes for 911 service, most recently in 2002.

Public Safety Director Mark James told lawmakers Monday that service needs to improve, and recommended a 75-cent monthly fee per cell phone number.

That fee would generate about $33.8 million a year, nearly as much as what’s collected now through the fee on landline numbers, state emergency officials said.

“Ours is one of the worst in the nation, and actions must be taken to correct this life-threatening problem,” James said. “I pray that we don’t have to have a catastrophe occur before we have the courage to fix this situation.”

About three-fourths of Missouri’s 171 emergency call centers also have outdated equipment and need technology improvements, such as the ability to share data with each other in a major disaster, James said.

“The technology is there today to do a tremendous amount of work, but our centers can’t receive the information,” said state 911 coordinator R.D. Porter.

A big problem, emergency service officials said, is that Missouri uses a phone tariff to pay for landline 911 service, but 911 call centers handle calls from all types of phones. Landline accounts are dropping as cell phone totals are rising.

James also said 911 centers need to ensure wise use of new money they get, noting that in some areas there’s a city and a county center within a few blocks of each other that could consolidate efforts.

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