Dispatchers need new equipment

Friday, July 5, 2019

Imagine if the Butler County Sheriff’s deputies were driving around in 20-year-old patrol cars, hoping they don’t break down heading to a call while replacement parts are no longer made.

That’s basically how the department is running a console to handle its incoming 911 calls.

“The equipment is obsolete,” Sheriff Mark Dobbs recently told county commissioners. “They don’t make any more parts and repairs are almost impossible.”

He’s not exaggerating. The console looks like it came from mission control during the Apollo era next to the bank of modern computer screens. The department had two dispatch consoles, but one no longer works and the other is starting to breakdown with frequent reboots to the system.

“If it goes down, it can’t be fixed,” Dobbs said.

To replace two consoles, according to a bid received by the county, it will cost $56,645.

Butler County brings in $110,000 a year from a tax on landline phones. But it costs the county approximately $200,000 a year to operate its 911 system and the number of landline phones is decreasing each year.

What the county receives in the landline tax does not even cover salary and benefits for two operators, Dobbs has said, while the county employs six operators, who also serve as the dispatchers and perform other duties in the department.

“If it weren’t for subsidies by the sheriff’s department, I don’t know how we would have a 911 system,” Dobbs said in April 2018.

The first 911 call was placed in a town about the size of Malden. It was 1968, just over a decade after the National Association of Fire Chiefs recommended the use of a single number for reporting fires. The number was chosen because it was short, easy to remember and dial, and had not been already used as an area code. After first being used in Haleyville, Alabama, the next 911 system was set up in Nome, Alaska.

Calls from landlines were easy to associate with a location. If a call were dropped, a dispatcher could use the location assigned with the number to send help. With a wireless call that’s not possible. The Federal Trade Commission’s wireless Enhanced 911 rules are for carriers to provide 911 dispatchers with the information on where wireless 911 calls are made to within 50 feet for the majority of the country by 2020.

About three-fourths of all 911 calls now come from wireless phones, according to a report by the Missouri Department of Public Safety. Butler County is one of 28 counties in the state that cannot locate callers on cellphones.

There are three 911 public safety answering points in Butler County — the Sheriff’s Department, Poplar Bluff Police Department and Missouri State Highway Patrol Troop E. If the console goes down at the Sheriff’s Department, calls can be picked up by the others — as has happened in past breakdowns — but the console also provides the department with its ability to reach deputies and other departments by radio.

County commissioners have said they have looked for grant money to help, but this problem is only going to get worse.

There are only two states that do not collect a 911 user fee from wireless customers — Missouri and Wisconsin — according to the National Emergency Number Association. This year the Show-Me State started collecting a 911 service charge on prepaid wireless services, or minutes, but not wireless plans.

Statewide voters rejected ballot measures twice (1999 and 2002) to impose a monthly fee of up to 50 cents on wireless phones to fund enhanced 911 services.

Last year, Stoddard County combined the Sheriff’s Department, Dexter Police, Bernie Police, Bloomfield Police and County Ambulance all on the same upgraded 911 system for the first time. The money came from a tax voted on by citizens. It passed with 76% approval.

“They will remain separate departments, but working together more efficiently to serve our citizens in a better way,” said Stoddard County 911 Administrator Carol Moreland at the time.

The Dec. 2017 study by the Dept. of Public Safety recommended consolidation to help with funding. And while Butler County’s public safety community has discussed it, they are no closer while the funding gap gets wider and the technology gets older.

In a profession where seconds are the difference between life or death, the right equipment for the job is essential.

We think it’s all of our responsibility to provide it.

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