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Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014

Scott County's 911 still on the cutting edge

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

SIKESTON -- A lot of things have changed over the last 10 years for Scott County's 911 dispatching center -- some for the better, some not so much.

"Technology-wise, we are a lot more advanced," said Joe Burton, emergency management director for Scott County and former E-911 administrator. "Financially, we're a lot worse off."

Burton assumed responsibility for the county's emergency dispatching center in Morley on June 1, 1997.

"We actually went online on Sept. 11, 1997," he recalled. "When we first opened 911 down there, we were an Enhanced 911 system. We opened as an enhanced system, which means we got phone numbers and addresses for the call. Not everybody does that -- there are still counties in the state of Missouri that are not enhanced."

The county's 911 also started out with a GIS mapping system and the ability to receive cell phone calls, although with cell phone calls "we got a telephone number on the screen but nothing else," Burton said.

Three or four years later, the county improved its GIS system, he recalled. "Around that point in time we upgraded and we started getting Phase 2 calls," Burton said. He explained with Phase 2, the 911 equipment is able to display which tower a cell phone call is coming from and even which side of the tower, narrowing down considerably the search area for callers who don't tell dispatchers their location.

"About a year after that, we upgraded out 911 software," Burton continued. "We also started answering some phase 3 calls."

With Phase 3, latitude and longitude information is transmitted for cell phone calls so the location is plotted on a GIS map.

"At that point in time we were only the third county in the state that was doing that," Burton said. "We have stayed on the cutting edge of technology since we opened -- and we still are on the cutting edge."

In February 2006, the move of the dispatch center from Morley to the new Scott County Jail along with 911 software and GIS upgrades was completed. Soon after, Burton handed off the 911 administration duties but continues to serve as mapping and GIS coordinator for the county's E-911.

From desktop phones and radio sets to a completely computerized system, the county's 911 has come a long way. "I'm really proud of what Scott County has done as far as technology goes," Burton said.

With the ability to track a variety of data from response times to the origins of aborted 911 calls, technological changes over the last decade have definitely been for the better, even if they do involve a steeper learning curve for administrators and dispatcher than when he started 10 years ago.

"The financial side is a little different," Burton said. "Over these 10 years, we've seen wire line phones, which is what our tax base is built on, go away and people are using cell phones. Last year Scott County lost about $60,000 in revenue because of that. That doesn't seem like a lot of money but when our budget is as small as it is anyway, $60,000 is a significant chunk."

Burton explained there is no 911 tax on cell phones, even though the charge appears on some cell phone bills. The question of how or why 911 charges are appearing on Missouri cell phone bills when no state or local agency is receiving any of the revenue was even asked at a recent state Senate committee hearing a couple of weeks ago, Burton said: "Nobody knows for sure where that's going."

Missouri voters have rejected all attempts to add a 911 tax to cell phone bills so far.

"Quite frankly, the time is coming that the citizens of this county and the citizens of Missouri are going to have to make a decision on whether they want this service or not, because that is what it is going to boil down to," Burton said. "911 basically is just like any other business: if the revenue is not there, you can not keep it open."

Providing E-911 services is "not getting any cheaper; it's getting more expensive every year," Burton said.

With or without a 911 tax for cell phones, Burton believes a change is needed keep 911 dispatching viable in the future.

"I think the time has come -- not only financially, but for better protection for the citizens -- that we need to look at regional dispatching," he said.

One centralized 911 dispatching center could effectively service "three, four, five counties," Burton said. "It could even be bigger than that."