Part two in a five-part series addressing Camden County's most pressing needs ahead of the August 2014 primary.
An update of the Camden County 911 system that is currently underway should resolve the majority of current technology issues, but that does not mean the pinch on county 911 services is over.
The current system
According to 911 Director Sgt. Dave Edwards, the dwindling revenue from the county's 15 percent surcharge on land line phone bills has prolonged the department's use of an outdated program.
More and more people have been going to cell phones only, and the disconnection of land lines has led to a two-fold crunch for 911 services in Missouri as the main revenue source — land line phone tax — goes down and use of cell phones to call 911 goes up.
Not only is Camden County's current system outdated for today's communications, the programs are also unsupported for maintenance.
The current 911 system is still running DOS, according to Edwards, which went unsupported more than 10 years, and the radio system is also on an unsupported program. The old equipment has made getting parts almost an impossibility as well.
"We really are on borrowed time. It was not if but when the system would crash," commented Edwards, who called the upgrade "major."
The situation has been critical for years.
"[It's been critical] for every bit of five years, almost six. It's probably been longer than that, but really critical for five," he said. "Now we'll finally be able to catch up to today's technology."
Edwards credited the current county commission with finally understanding the need to act on the upgrade which is being funded outside the 911 budget. The contract with Central Communications for the $401,585.05 upgrade is being paid from the general fund.
"I don't want to get involved in politics, but it took this commission to do it. They've done an outstanding job getting this done," he said.
A combination of phase I and phase II enhanced 911 upgrades, the new system will provide communications officers in the dispatch center with the name, phone number and location of callers using cell phones via a combination of GPS and triangulation of cell towers done by the phone company, according to Edwards.
In contrast to land lines, Camden County 911 does not currently receive any information on cell phone calls — no name, number or location.
The new E-911 system will also allow the county to receive cell phone text messages as mobile carriers implement that ability in accordance with federal regulations. That techology is not currently available but could be coming out some time this year for some of the bigger companies.
With the E-911 upgrade, the county is also making improvements to the radio system and dispatch system to enhance emergency services.
Two repeaters are being added to the radio system to eliminate dead spots in coverage in more remote areas of the county, according to Camden County Sheriff’s Department Captain Kelly Luttrell. There are currently locations where officers lose signal. Dispatch improvements also include a different record-keeping management system that should be less expensive to maintain in the long run and an automatic vehicle locator for an additional $53,856.55 which will allow dispatchers to see where emergency service units are located in order to more effectively dispatch the closest unit to an incident.
Funding for Camden County 911 to buy the equipment and programs required for the enhanced service was approved by the county commission this spring and is scheduled to be fully active by July 29.
While the upgrade should resolve the majority of communication issues on the county's end — it can't control cell phone service issues — the declining land line revenue is still impacting 911 services, according to Edwards.
"As the phone tax goes down, support for the 911 center goes down and the county has to find money to replace it. We become more reliant on them whereas the phone tax can also be used for 911," he said. "Every day operations are impacted. We have to pay so much to run equipment. We have to pay for trunk lines — those aren't free. There is a great burden on the operations of the 911 center — more than people think."
One of the biggest impacts of the budget crunch for the department is on personnel.
The starting wage for dispatchers for Camden County is $10.22 per hour which is low in comparison to the starting wage for dispatchers elsewhere in the region, Edwards noted, citing Lebanon's rate of $13.08.
"We've got a pretty good turnover rate, but with our funding, we can't — they won't let me pay them more," he said.
It is more common than not to be short staffed of communication officers.
As of July 8, dispatch was three officers short of "fully staffed" with possibly another leaving soon.
To be "fully staffed" includes four on duty for the shift — one shift supervisor and three communication officers — with four shifts to fill. Minimum staffing for a shift by law is two.
According to Edwards, there are times when they only have two on duty, and he steps in to help as much as possible to keep coverage going.
Local surcharges on land lines are currently the only method of taxation on phones open to the county for revenue dedicated solely to 911 service. Other key revenue sources for 911 include transfers from the sheriff's Law Enforcement Sales Tax, the 2007 1/2-cent sales tax and dispatching fees.
Bills that would authorize counties to have the ability to ask voters for a surcharge on wireless devices have been considered by the state legislature in multiple sessions, but nothing has ever been passed.
According to data from the Federal Communications Commission, Missouri is one of 10 states where funding mechanisms for 911 services are authorized at the county or other local jurisdictional level. Funds are not collected statewide and then distributed. In comparison, 19 states fund 911 through statewide fees or taxes and 22 states have a hybrid approach in which both revenue methods are utilized.
Outside of current operational expenses at the county level, the field of communications in general is a quickly evolving landscape. As Camden County now updates to better accommodate cell phones, the federal government is analyzing the deployment of "Next Generation 911" which could include the ability to send photos and video to 911 dispatchers as well as text messages in addition to voice calls.