State House hearing in Elizabeth Twp. airs 911 funding concerns
By Patrick Cloonan and Aaron Aupperle
Published: Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, 4:51 a.m.
It sometimes is difficult to get cellphone reception at Butler's Golf Course in Elizabeth Township.
On Wednesday, in a place where cellphones couldn't interrupt the proceedings, lawmakers took input about changing the laws that govern and fund emergency dispatch systems.
State Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Elizabeth Township, hosted a hearing of the state House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee at Rock Run Inn on the course's grounds.
“There is nothing more important than coming up with a sound new bill,” Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency's chief deputy director Bob Full said. “Pennsylvania's 911 program has been a success story for years, but now it faces a crisis that threatens its viability and sustainability.”
“I can't get all the disciplines, all the cops to talk to each other, never mind fire and EMS,” said Maj. Scott Neal, director of communication and information services for the state police.
Neal and Full, former director of Allegheny County emergency services, were among a dozen witnesses at the last of three hearings on 911 systems.
“Our 911 system is poised for collapse,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said of changes that have been made to save the state's 911 fund, but which have proven costly for the county.
Funding for emergency dispatch systems falls short of covering increasing operating costs, forcing the county to rely on taxes to cover the deficit, Fitzgerald testified.
Dispatchers handle more than 1.3 million emergency and non-emergency calls every year for police, fire and EMS agencies in the county's 130 municipalities. Legislators are weighing changes in funding for 911 systems to keep up with dramatic shifts in how people use phones.
The law imposes a $1 to $1.50 monthly surcharge on landline telephones and $1 monthly surcharge on cellphones and other communication devices. The fees have not increased with inflation or to reflect the increase in wireless communication, experts testified.
Further crippling counties is the distribution of surcharges: Landline fees go to the county, but cellphone fees go to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. Counties can request a portion of cellphone fees, but the process leads to competition among governments and unequal distribution of funds, Fitzgerald said.
Recently, PEMA held back more money, resulting in a spike in the amount county taxpayers must cover, Fitzgerald said.
In 2008, the county collected $8.7 million in surcharges; last year, $7.8 million.
The county spent $2.6 million from its general fund in 2012 on the 911 system. Fitzgerald predicted it could cost taxpayers $5.2 million this year and more than $6 million next year.
The consolidation over two decades of 47 emergency dispatch centers and partnerships with other counties to utilize technology did not cut spending enough, Fitzgerald said. The 911 system's 2013 operating budget is $5 million.
“The goal should be to provide citizens with efficient emergency communications services but to do so in a way that does not exacerbate further the current burden over Pennsylvanians,” said Bethanne Cooley, legislative affairs director for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association.
“Wireless 911 fees should be established and collected on a statewide basis,” Cooley said. “Collecting fees at different rates, which can change with little notice, and remitting multiple tax returns to local jurisdictions is onerous and time-consuming for providers.”
“Our new Pennsylvania 911 statute must fairly accommodate both today's new technologies and those yet to emerge,” Verizon state government relations director Frank P. Buzydlowski said.
He said existing law “assumes the use of circuit-switched, analog wireline technology” where a new law needs to “encourage innovation, efficiency and the adoption of the best available technologies.”
It has to take into consideration the state's topography, witnesses and lawmakers noted.
Rep. Bill Kortz, D-Dravosburg, recalled working with Full, then-county Executive Dan Onorato and U.S. Reps Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, and Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, to secure $856,000 in federal funding for interoperable communications in the Mon-Yough area.
“This is the last area (in the county) where we need to fulfill the need for one radio to cover everything,” Full said in McKeesport in 2008, when the grant was awarded.
Kortz said it once was impossible to radio River Road from the Dravosburg fire hall just a mile away.
Federal funding affected the statewide StarNet communications network, Kenneth Budka of Alcatel-Lucent said.
Budka's company has partnered with the state since 1998 to build the microwave system now known as StarNet.
He said an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant a decade later extended StarNet to supply bandwidth to underserved portions in the north of the state.
He said StarNet is being utilized to help regional 911, including a 14-county plan in the Pittsburgh area and a 10-county plan in the north-central area of the state.
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