James Thalman

James Thalman

Story Vault

By James Thalman

Ask most Americans what numbers come to mind in case of an emergency and they’ll say 9-1-1. Ask most PSAP managers to say what numbers come to mind in case of an emergency and they’ll string a long series of digits together, all starting with a dollar sign.

They will also be quick to note the significant costs of maintaining the other half of every 9-1-1--two-way radio communications. A 9-1-1 call engages dispatchers who then engage the police, fire, and medical responders over a radio system of relay towers that must work in all weathers at all times at all climes. Whether forest fires rage near the towers in lowland timber or winter encases them in sideways stalagmites of ice 2,000 feet above where trees don’t grow, towers must be up and humming 24/7/365.

Everything has to work, no matter what. Maintaining two-way communication can be tricky, even risky, as the cover photograph of the tower perched on Black Crook Peak near Salt Lake City shows in no uncertain terms. Winter storms regularly sculpt the sky-high tower into one bug-eyed alien monster of a maintenance trip.

And, no matter what time of year, landing a helicopter at 9,274 feet “is a little like balancing a glass of water on a pencil,” said Wade Matthews of Tooele Emergency Management. “The tower has never failed, even though our folks have been certain it would a few times.”

It’s a combination of good luck, good work and money that keeps all the scenes behind the scenes of 9-1-1 going. The system is so good that it is taken for granted and the public it serves thinks it’s a free call. Those who sit night and day at the consoles and those who mind the radio system so information is reliably transmitted to the field responders know that the service isn’t free by a long shot.

In short, the 9-1-1 system might seem self-perpetuating after nearly 44 years, but it is constantly buffeted by some pretty stiff budgetary winds, yet keeps providing unparalled customer service. No brag, just fact.

While the marketplace will insist in a voice mail to customers how important their call is to a company, then advise them to “listen closely as our options have changed,” a real, live dispatcher answers the phone, usually on the first ring and sends help seconds into the call. If a comm. center uses the NAED protocols, the “customer” is provided guided help over the phone while emergency responders are on the way.

“Yes, your call is very important to us, but we would never have to say that; callers know,” Danny Gordon, an EMD with Newton County Central Dispatch in Neosho, Mo., told The Journal in April. “The call isn’t just important, it’s vital. It’s the catalyst to how the entire incident is handled. We not only have to provide the ultimate customer service, we’re providing the ultimate public service at the same time. We take it very seriously.”

Money is the main reason companies and telephone service providers have outsourced customer service to India or relegated calls to a menu repeated by a disembodied voice. There is no incoming revenue in staffing customer hotlines. There’s no money in staffing emergency call centers, either, but 9-1-1 still costs plenty. And with the advent of the digital age, providing the new and improved emergency data centers, which one day will save public safety resources flying out the door these days, requires hefty financial investments now.

Fold in the migration to the fullest and best use of IP broadband data sharing Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG 9-1-1) while at the same time having to maintain the current landline-based network, and the country’s public safety answering points (PSAPs) along with oversight committees in legislatures and in Congress are scrambling to figure out how to pay for both the legacy 9-1-1 system and NG9-1-1.

In short, if nothing is done about funding, financial support will undoubtedly be shouldered by fewer and fewer individuals right at the time the use of telecommunications continues to skyrocket but the cost per family for telecommunications is actually going down.

Free is expensive

Two people in line at a grocery store in March who use prepaid cell phones said they don’t pay a penny for 9-1-1, and that’s how it should be. “The more people use a service, the cheaper it is to run. You say nearly every person knows the number and knows who to call in an emergency. That shouldn’t cost anything. No, I don’t feel bad that I’m not helping pay for it. I had a home phone for years, and I’ve shut that off. It’s somebody else’s turn.”

The traditional or “legacy” 9-1-1 system is underwritten by home phones wired into the network. A user fee or service provider kicked in a small monthly surcharge of around $4 or $5. The public’s notion that 9-1-1 always answers, therefore they’re financially fit, is convenient but flat; it’s simply not true.

“All things can’t grow wild and free, especially not a service that is available 24/7, 365 days a year, and has to be there no matter what and when things are at their worst, said Brian Dale, deputy chief with the Salt Lake City Fire Department and Accreditation Board chair for the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch (NAED).

“The free-to-me attitude is understandable, but that causes direct harm to a PSAP somewhere,” Dale continued. “When people feel no need to help pay to keep the lights on and centers humming at every moment of every single day, someone else has to. It’s not like we have a choice to be open or not.”

As dispatch center supervisors across the country make their slow but sure and expensive way toward fully integrated IP broadband operations as part of the (NG9-1-1) overhaul, revenue from 9-1-1 fees and surcharges from monthly home phone bills that kept dispatch centers up and running the past 44 years is dissipating.

Wireless service providers aren’t rushing to make up the difference, yet every single customer can still and probably always will be able to call 9-1-1.

A booming information technology market combined with the public’s insatiable urge for the next latest, fastest hand-held device, means a shortfall in revenue is increasing every day. As the number of cell phone users and service providers who are paying a portion or nothing at all for 9-1-1 service increase, the fees collected from the use of a good, old landline home telephone, which have kept the 9-1-1 agencies afloat the past 44 years, are going away faster than VHS tapes on the Internet.

The negative numbers are starting to add up, right at the time when additional funding is needed to make PSAPs truly 21st century communicators under NG9-1-1.

The state of Vermont, which is a NG9-1-1 forerunner, is already projecting a $462,000 loss of revenue per year if prepaid cell phone customers and providers in that state don’t start pitching into the 9-1-1 fund.

PSAPs around the country are reporting that nearly a fourth of wireless 9-1-1 calls, or 15% of all 9-1-1 calls, are made with a phone not billed in any way for the service.

Other industries have made changes converging new ways with old ways—land-wire telephone switching centers in this case—but emergency communications must continue to be viable until the new NG9-1-1 is in place.

Although each industry has its path to its new hybridized version based on the digitizing world, the news media is a recent example of how print, broadcast, and broadband data have been blended into kind of a one-stop news shop, with digital data the main information conduit.

Financially, it’s beyond a Rubik’s Cube in getting the mix of funding styles to match up. As experts, researchers, veterans, and newbies alike say, when it comes to funding, distinguishing between which parts of the telecommunications costs are phone, video, and Internet are anyone’s guess at this point.

Service providers have competitive incentives to allocate costs away from phone services, which have been communications centers’ financial bread and butter. To this day, the old copper wire connections are underwriting a good portion of cell phone access.

And if that weren’t a nasty enough wrinkle, NG9-1-1 funding engineers have the daunting task of determining which portion of telecommunications costs amount to commerce that is therefore non-taxable state-by-state. They must also comb through the hair-like wires of regulations and which services are regulated locally, by the state, or by the federal government.

One dispatcher said from his point of view—from the console, not from the grand scheme of things—“What they’re up against is not unlike someone giving you a hatchet, telling you to go into the forest and to contact the outside world when you’ve figured out how to send an e-mail.”

Add the fact that there are more cell phones in America than there are Americans, and you’ve added an element of difficulty similar to the funding equation that could be described as something like trying to have a chat about polyhedral combinatorics at a Bunko party.

Funny as in weird

The collection and distribution of 9-1-1 fees in the United States is funny, not as in “ha-ha” but as in weird, with practices as wide and varied as the landscape between the bright, blue shining seas. First of all, 9-1-1 calls are free but they’re not free by any means to respond to. That has been a kink in various parts of the system since Day 1.

The financial filigree of current operations is shown best in the past six months by two reports, one on the federal level and one on the state level.

The first is a report to Congress from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Not only do states and agencies within states have their own unique ways of collecting fees, some—10 at least in 2010—used portions of the fees collected for purposes partially or completely unrelated to 9-1-1.

In 2009, 12 states were diverting funds for non-9-1-1-related expenditures.

While it’s good that the number of states diverting 9-1-1 funds from their proper purpose has slightly decreased, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a news release announcing the report, that the agency must be given the power to do more than detail funding practices and discrepancies among the various states.

“As we move toward a next-generation 9-1-1 system, the FCC is today seeking input on how to most effectively use 9-1-1 fees to enable the transition to sending text, video, and photos to 9-1-1. . The call to underwrite 9-1-1’s future was apparently heard in Congress: As part of the controversial payroll tax cut extension approved in February, Congress included $115 million in kick-start funding to state and local 9-1-1 authorities.

The funding may have come as a bit of a surprise to the public and to many emergency dispatch centers, but it shows that Congress can agree on something and that the call for a true, nationwide funding strategy is as integral a part of the move to Internet-based dispatching as a smartphone is to a teenager.

Steve Proctor, executive director of the Utah Communication Agency Network (UCAN) and a former dispatcher who has been around the two-way radio side of emergency communications for as long as there has been 9-1-1, said succinctly: “[NG9-1-1] is a better mousetrap, but it’s being built for us, in a way. We have a vision of what the future is but we don’t have a plan to handle it or how to pay for it really.”

Just 10 years ago, most people didn’t have a cell phone and Facebook had barely reached the “gleam in the eye” stage for founder Mark Zuckerberg.

“Now, not only does everybody go around ‘liking’ everybody on social networks, but we all have a phone in our pocket and the phone has a camera in it and video and roaming access to the Web,” Proctor said. “The Baby Boomer/landline generation hasn’t even faded and the Internet generation is already taking over. They are just gobbling up technology, so we better too.”

As tricky as figuring out the funding schematics for NG9-1-1, the savings from pooling calls and pooling resources through broadband is simple arithmetic. There’s plenty of evidence on the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) website and other state emergency services sites showing the financial benefit.

NG9-1-1 at this moment, however, is facing the daunting task of not only making sure that technology isn’t a barrier, Proctor said, but “whatever it is, it’s got to work. Whatever it takes right now, we have to streamline the politically and geographically peculiar funding approaches. Basically, those who use any technology to access 9-1-1 need to help pay for it. The overriding fact is that the broadband era in dispatching is a unified approach, and as we learned and preach as UCAN members, whatever we do is going to be cheaper doing it together.”

They’ve got our number

The phrase “doing it together” scares a lot of agencies that have become autonomous and have gotten used to charging fees for 9-1-1 to suit the political leanings and particular turf claims among police, fire, and medical emergency services agencies. Because the system is now evolving into that new mousetrap Proctor sees, the fact remains that the guy hurt on the street or the family in their hour of need doesn’t care how the call comes in, only that help comes along, and fast.

According to the National Association of State Nine-One-One Administrators (NASNA), the most common funding mechanism for 9-1-1 is a dedicated surcharge on retail telecommunication charges.

Fees are collected on wireless charges in most areas as well, often at the state level with a distribution mechanism used to funnel funds to local authorities.

In any case, it is next to impossible to know exactly how the collection and mechanisms are adapting because many prepaid plan cell phone users really are getting a free ride.

NASNA reports that the two fastest-growing forms of telecommunications—Internet and prepaid cell phones—pay little or nothing into 9-1-1 funds.

“That should be cause for concern for any agency and any state,” James Lipinski, emergency services coordinator the the state of Vermont, which is a forerunner in adapting emergency services communications to the digital age.

In broad terms, the national 9-1-1 upgrade has a lot of lines and multiple-choice blanks to be filled in by various state and local emergency communications centers. Overall spending on telecommunications is going up because consumers and businesses are purchasing more sophisticated services in greater amounts. However, voice telephone service, the costs that consumers actually pay, is going down.