Dispatcher Lenny Martin takes a sip of coffee while answering a call Feb. 14 in the current 911 dispatch space at the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff’s Department in Jackson. Kassi Jackson photo.
911 is the go-to emergency call number, but in Missouri, the larger system is a patchwork with no common oversight. Individual counties, and in many cases cities and towns, are responsible for their own systems. That means entities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on software, equipment and staffing for a 911 dispatch center, at least once every 10 years, said Zach Dillard, communications director with the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff’s Department.
According to a December 2017 report from the Missouri Department of Public Safety and the Missouri 911 Service Board, “lack of statewide 911 coordination and a statewide 911 network leave Missouri with a fragmented 911 system.”
Approximately 185 independent public safety answering points, or PSAPs, each operating under a different county system, with different levels of service, operate in Missouri’s 114 counties; emergency responses can vary greatly based on where in the state the call is placed.
Sixteen counties offer only Basic 911 — the lowest level of 911 service permissible under federal law, with dispatchers receiving only seven-digit phone numbers with each call, no name or approximate location.
Those counties are Bollinger, Carter, Cedar, Clark, Dent, Douglas, Hickory, Mercer, Oregon, Ozark, Ripley, St. Clair, Schuyler, Scotland, Shannon and Wayne.
Dispatchers tend to screens and calls Feb. 14 in the current 911 dispatch space at the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff’s Department in Jackson.
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Seventy counties provide Phase 2 service. Phase 2 is the level provided by the Cape Girardeau County PSAPs, and information sent with 911 calls includes the phone number, cell tower address and sector of the call’s origin.
Next Generation 911, which the PSAPs in Cape Girardeau County are looking to upgrade to in late 2019, will enable PSAPs to receive text messages and other information that will help emergency services reach callers more quickly.
According to the 2017 report, having a low level of 911 service doesn’t just affect residents, but also travelers.
The report cites a statistic from the National Park Service that 1.2 million St. Louis County residents travel to south central Missouri, and leave the Phase 2 service level to enter an area predominantly served by Basic 911.
“Although technology used by 911 callers has advanced greatly, technology used to answer and process those calls has failed to keep pace,” the 2017 report states.
“Communication between callers and telecommunicators will remain the weakest link in emergency communication,” the report continues.
Additionally, if PSAPs don’t use the same software system, transferring calls between entities is “extremely limited,” the report states.
In response, Cape Girardeau County, the three 911 PSAPs — Cape Girardeau and Jackson, and the county’s center — are working to consolidate.
Jackson and the county’s centers will physically consolidate into a secure location in the existing sheriff’s office in Jackson, and when that happens, the software and equipment will be upgraded.
At the same time, the City of Cape Girardeau’s dispatch software will be upgraded as well, in a move Lt. Jeff Bonham with the Cape Girardeau Police Department called a “virtual consolidation.”
This way, Bonham said, all agencies will be able to share information immediately, and can even transfer calls directly to Cape County Private Ambulance, which has a contract to provide ambulance service.
It’s a cost savings, all of this consolidation, Bonham said, but even so, it isn’t cheap.
The company Zuercher is the county’s vendor for the computer-aided dispatch, or CAD, software and records management system at the sheriff’s office, and the company had offered an add-on module for 911 that will interface with all three PSAPs, according to minutes from the Jan. 17 Cape Girardeau County Commission meeting.
Sheriff Ruth Ann Dickerson applied for and received a grant to help cover the $300,000 price tag of the 911 module of the software package — a discounted rate, and one that will be a cost-sharing expense by the three agencies, Bonham said.
The rest of the software package would cost about $600,000, according to Scott Eakers of the Jackson Police Department, a member of the 911 advisory board in Cape Girardeau County.
“Virtually consolidating between all our agencies, Jackson and the county physically, does a lot of different things for everyone’s safety, and helps reduce cost, too. It’s a big deal,” Bonham said.
According to a 911 system status report for Cape Girardeau County and the cities of Cape Girardeau and Jackson, dated Aug. 16, by Ken Eftink, the first 911 system was installed in Alabama in 1968. That system connected a caller to a local police station on the analog phone system in widespread use at the time.
In Cape Girardeau County, in 1991, a six-member committee presented its report after investigating the possibility of bringing 911 to the county.
The committee recommended presenting a ballot issue to voters to approve the 911 system and a monthly 911 service fee for landlines to residences and businesses within the county.
The issue was approved in November 1991.
The first 911 advisory board was appointed two weeks after the election, to study and address numerous issues to be resolved before 911 could be implemented.
Rural route addresses had to be converted to be compatible with the system — “a major task,” Eftink’s report noted.
Acquisition of equipment, software, backup power, towers and office space was also necessary.
Operators and dispatchers had to receive training; and new road and street signs had to be purchased and installed.
All of this was completed, and the system went live in February 1993.
But funding became an issue.
As copper-wire landline phones fell out of favor and more households went to cellular phones, the funding mechanism — an 8 percent tax on landline phone service — meant revenue fell.
According to Eftink’s report, the 8 percent tax generated $579,000 in 2007. In 2017, however, only $366,000 was collected — a 37 percent decrease.
The tax was not assessed on cellular phones.
And expenses are rising.
In 2007, revenue was $579,000 and expenses were $251,000, according to Eftink’s report. But in 2017, revenue was $366,000 and expenses were $528,000.
So government leaders teamed up.
About a year ago, Bonham said, the three entities started researching options jointly.
At the Jan. 7 Jackson Board of Aldermen meeting, 911 advisory board members Eakers and Randy Davis with the Jackson Fire Department updated city leaders on the status of the 911 system.
Eakers had said the dispatch equipment is at the natural end of its life, and the software needs to be upgraded.
“If it goes down, we’re shot,” Eakers said at the meeting.
“We’ve worked diligently as a board to fund new software,” Eakers said, noting Dickerson’s grant-writing effort.
Maintenance on the system will be about $150,000 per year, Eakers said. “It’s just part of doing business with these major companies,” he added.
Eakers said Stoddard County has gone with the same system.
Legislation passed in the fall allowed each county in Missouri to decide how to fund 911 services.
Cape Girardeau County’s plans are not finalized.
As for the legislation itself, Eakers said it is still being negotiated.
In response to Jackson Alderman David Hitt’s question about other states’ funding mechanisms for 911, Eakers said there are several models.
“Some collect by devices that connect to 911, some by account,” Eakers said.
In Missouri, it’s a complicated issue, Eakers said.
Missouri was the last state to allow a tax on cellphones to fund 911 systems.
And, the state doesn’t have a unified 911 system.
That means coverage isn’t consistent from region to region, county to county, even city to city in many places, said Zach Dillard, in communications with the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff’s Department.
In Cape Girardeau County, Dillard said, “We’re a bit better off. We’re in Phase 2 now.”
That means when a caller dials 911 from a cellphone or landline, the dispatcher gets the phone number and a general location that is more or less accurate in most cases, Dillard said.
But the new system to be adopted by the county and two cities will be an improvement over that, Bonham said.
With the upgrade to Next Generation 911, “We’re going to have capability of text to 911,” Bonham said.
If a caller is abducted, or has had a stroke, or is hiding from a potential threat, or is otherwise unable to talk, texting is a great option, Bonham said.
“We have not had that capability within Cape County before,” Bonham said, but the new system will bring that to Cape Girardeau County 911 callers.
Cape County Private Ambulance handles its own dispatching, but receives calls from the PSAPs, Eftink’s report noted. Seven fire districts in the county receive calls from the PSAPs, as well.
At the Jan. 23 board of aldermen meeting, city attorney Tom Ludwig presented an agreement with the county to share the capital cost of the central dispatch center, to be located in the sheriff’s office.
The operating cost will be a separate agreement, Ludwig said at the meeting.
The total cost of the new center will be about $300,000, and each of the two entities — the City of Cape Girardeau and the Jackson/county center — will pay half of that, Ludwig said.
Jackson Mayor Dwain Hahs said county officials had done a good job keeping the cost low, doing most of the work in-house.
On Feb. 25, county IT director Eric McGowen requested approval from commissioners to purchase two network switches, three wireless access points and the three-year licensing and support for the 911 call center. McGowen recommended purchasing from ISG Technologies, at a cost of $10,800.
McGowen said much of the work on the dispatch center is roughed in, and is on track to be operational with the county and Jackson dispatchers this fall.
The transition is likely to begin this summer.
According to the 2017 report, the cost to establish a workstation, without factoring in the cost of personnel to staff it, can vary between $23,000 and $150,000, with a typical Phase 2 workstation price tag coming in at more than $100,000.
Several PSAPs are also understaffed, and dispatchers handle clerical duties.
Dispatchers in all three Cape Girardeau County PSAPs perform duties in addition to dispatching, according to Eftink’s report. These include processing concealed-carry permits, entry of warrant information, processing ex parte orders, enter registered sex offenders and monitor and operate secured doors in the sheriff’s office or Cape Girardeau city jail.
Ultimately, county emergency management agency director Mark Winkler said he believes people would rather have access to 911 than not.
“Whatever proposals the county makes, whether equipment, software consolidation, generating revenue streams — it’s all for the citizens of Cape Girardeau County. We’re just here to serve the constituents, and we believe 911 is valuable, that anyone who wants to dial 911 wants to get an answer. We want it to have all been well thought out, whatever decisions are made, all for the benefit of serving the citizens of Cape Girardeau County.”
By Marybeth Niederkorn | Southeast Missourian