911 center upgrades

Outdated fees: Mushrooming use, fast-changing technology boost cost

bill collection problems remain.

October 29, 2001

MARYLAND'S 911 emergency telephone system is funded by a monthly subscriber fee that was established over 20 years ago -- before national deregulation and the advent of cell phones.

That fee structure needs to be revised to more fairly allocate customer charges and to meet the soaring costs of new technology and a rapidly expanding system.

The monthly fee -- 10 cents for the state 911 fund and up to 50 cents charged by Baltimore and the 23 counties -- yields about $29 million annually.

That's $4 million for the state trust fund and the rest apportioned to the counties, which operate separate 911 centers.

Many counties also add funds from their general budgets for emergency communications. But the cost of upgrading 911 systems to meet today's needs is outpacing the monthly fee revenues.

Just installing new equipment to identify and pinpoint the location of mobile wireless phone calls -- which now account for 40 percent of all 911 traffic -- will require tens of millions of dollars.

"Much more money is needed to bring these emergency systems up where they should be, but we don't know yet how much," says J. Scott Whitney, coordinator of the state Emergency Number Systems Board.

A backlog of applications from the counties for equipment money from the state 911 fund caused the board to temporarily freeze new grants a year ago.

The 13-member board, which coordinates the county systems, recently asked each jurisdiction to estimate its new equipment needs in order to compile an overall state cost projection.

Meantime, a University of Maryland team is starting to survey projected needs and the phone customer fee structure as part of the first statewide evaluation of the emergency numbers systems.

Existing 911 center computer systems are aging rapidly. Only a quarter of the 24 jurisdictions have computerized maps displaying caller locations. More phone lines and dispatchers are needed to handle the mushrooming number of 911 calls.

Whatever the state needs and costs, the 911 customer fee structure remains an anachronism. The law sets the fee per bill rather than per phone line or number. That means a state agency or big business that gets one phone bill may pay the same monthly 911 charge as a single residential customer, according to Mr. Whitney.

A task force authorized by the General Assembly was to consider changes in the 911 fee. But it has yet to be formed, despite a Dec. 1 deadline to finish its work.

Better accounting for the 911 fees that phone carriers collect from consumers is also needed. A recent state audit found that the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which supports the emergency number board, had not even identified all phone companies that are charging consumers the 911 fee (for the state and counties).

Sharp discrepancies in monthly payments by some carriers to the state were unexplained, according to the report by the Office of Legislative Audits. And some carriers took too big a cut from the 911 fees for their customer collection services.

Furthermore, the OLA found that the public safety department itself had not submitted required annual reports of state 911 trust fund activities in 1998 and 1999. Nor had some counties submitted required annual audits of 911 system expenditures, the OLA noted.

Greater attention to these accounting responsibilities by the public safety department is needed. Without a firm grip on its financial oversight obligations, the state Emergency Numbers System Board can't hope to oversee and coordinate the costly upgrade of Maryland's vital 911 networks.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.