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911 service tries to solve cell phone woes

911 operations in Cape Girardeau County is continuing to improve their wireless device capabilities, while continuing to lose funding because of it.

Under the Federal Communications Commission’s rules, 911 dispatchers in the county have begun receiving more information from wireless calls, over two phases. Richard Knaup, the director and coordinator for 911 services for Cape Girardeau County, said that the two largest mobile providers, AT&T and Verizon, are already fully active in phase two.

Phase one consists of the dispatchers receiving the phone number of the caller and which cell tower transmitted the call. Phase two provides an estimated location, that is generally accurate to within 50 to 300 meters. The accuracy of the location is dependent of the number of cell towers off which the call pings.

“I was sitting here, one day, listening to the scanner after phase two was set up and running in Cape,” Knaup said. “They have a plentiful amount of cell phone towers in the city, and they were getting a good triangulation. They were able to track the individual down to within 15 feet.”

Knaup said they are able to connect the location to the nearest address and give that to first responders. He added his team has been in constant contact with the major wireless providers throughout the process. They are still waiting for T-Mobile and Sprint to complete phase two for the county. The county first requested these improvements to be done six-months ago.

“T-Mobile has called or sent an email and asked if we’d grant them an extension on the six-month period,” Knaup said. “I have no idea what technical problems they’re having, and Sprint hasn’t communicated with me in some while. I don’t know where they’re at.”

Knaup said that 911 calls from landline phones provide dispatchers the name of the caller and the exact address of the phone. He said this program has provided almost the same level of information for mobile devices. Knaup added that even when phase two is complete for all carriers, dispatchers still do not receive the name of the caller, and asks 911 callers to still provide that.

Despite 911 service’s need to deal with wireless calls with more and more sophisticated technology, no funding comes from wireless users. Missouri is the only state in the nation that does not have a 911 tax on wireless devices. With landline progressively declining in use, 911 budgets from across the state have had to be cut to stay out of debt.

“The bulk of running 911 is put on the back of copper wire users and they’re dwindling,” Knaup said. “We’re loosing revenue from that at a rate here is Cape Girardeau County of about four-and-one-third to four-and-a-half every year. Have been for several years.”

Knaup, along with county officials, have kept a close eye on the issue and have saved money in their budget every year to prepare for lowering tax revenue.

“We’ve been prudent to where we can carry money,” Knaup said. “For 2017, we carried leftover money from 2016 into 2017, which helped us counteract the loss of revenue. We’re probably going to be able to do that for 2018, but the way it looks with projections, if nothing changes, 2018 will be the last year that Cape Girardeau County 911 will be operating in the black.”

The county has stopped funding some helpful but unessential 911-budget items, including weather-monitoring capabilities and satellite phones to use if their landlines were down.

The county is also looking at consolidating the physical location of their dispatchers, called Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) from three locations to two. The PSAP at the Cape Girardeau Police Department will be unchanged, while the two other PSAPs are combined at the Sherriff’s office.

“The City of Jackson and the Cape Girardeau County Sherriff’s office are in the process now of consolidating their PSAPs to one,” Knaup said. “That will just about make it about equal population-wise with the city of Cape. We like that because we utilize local dispatchers that know our neighborhoods, our fire departments. That’s a plus.”

Other counties have had to consolidate with together because of the funding decreases, making the dispatchers less likely to know the specific roads the calls are coming from.

Knaup said they now only pay for training and maintaining their current equipment.

“There are some very nice new equipment out there, but it takes money and we have to be prudent with what we got,” Knaup said.

The county will have to buy a new computer-aided dispatch (CAD) software for 911 services soon, as their seven-year old software is going to be no longer supported. Knaup said will be very expensive to replace, but is confidant that the hardware they use can be operational for a few more years.

The upcoming technological phase of 911, called “next generation 911,” will however, requires new hardware. Knaup said their current computers would not be able to handle the next step in 911.

“Next generation is coming,” Knaup said. “It is not far into the future. I look for next-generation to come in the next five to 10 years. It’s in major market areas, and our board has talked about that big time. All the vendors including AT&T have talked about it.”

Next generation allows users to text 911, or uses the web to contact the dispatcher. Knaup mentioned that he has seen technology that allows callers to share videos of the scene.

“I’ve been told that the federal government has notified the State of Missouri that they need to address the wireless telephone surcharge tax or whatever you want to call it,” Knaup said. “If they don’t, it could affect other federal money that would be available to the State of Missouri.”

If the issue is not resolved on the state level, it will be up to the county commission to decide if 911 would be partially funded through their general fund or if a local sales tax may need to be enacted.

Jay Forness covers education, county government and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Jackson for the past four years. He can be reached at cbjedit@socket.net.

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