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Politics & Government

Underfunded 9-1-1 Call Centers Will Wait Another Year For Surcharge Hike

More than a year of negotiations has yielded little fruit when it comes to increasing the monthly phone line surcharge that funds 9-1-1 call centers in Pennsylvania.

Instead, the state Legislature will likely extend the existing surcharge for one year. Land line customers will continue to pay between $1.00-$1.50 each month, while wireless and VOIP customers will pay $1.00/month.

Bill sponsor Rep. Steve Barrar (R-Delaware) said many counties are losing money on their 9-1-1 call centers. Last year, Allegheny County saw a $6 million shortfall in the 9-1-1 services budget, according to County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

“I don’t know if this delay or kicking the can down the road … is going to be helpful,” Fitzgerald said. “I realize they’re dealing with budgetary issues … but this is an issue where public safety is really at risk.”

Part of the problem has been finding a dollar amount that works for all stakeholders, and figuring out whether the surcharge should be increased by a finite amount or a percentage.

Barrar said a new plan would involve more than just increasing the surcharge. It would also likely allow the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency to incentivize consolidation of county 9-1-1 call centers with grants to fund technology upgrades.

“The FCC has passed … a mandate to the states, telling that by the end of the 2015, our 911 centers must be able to accept text messaging,” Barrar said. “That just doesn’t happen for free. The technology must be installed in our 9-1-1 centers, and there is a cost to that.”

The text messaging mandate is a precursor to the “Next Generation 9-1-1” initiative from the National Emergency Number Association, which would allow for transmission of images, video, and data during 9-1-1 calls.

Additionally, said Barrar, “We will be able to pinpoint you in any part of a building. We will be able to have much better communication with a person regardless of where they are in the country, or even in a building that may not have a great signal coming from it.”

Fitzgerald said he is on board with such a plan.

“Consolidation is what is needed,” Fitzgerald said. “That would help lower the cost for everybody … (and) the system would run much more efficiently.”

In the meantime, the legislature will vote on the extending the current surcharge law, which is slated to expire at the end of June.

“We feel that we probably can have this ready by the end of this year or the beginning of the new session next year,” Barrar said.