State pushes consolidated 911 call centers
By Adam Brandolph
Published: Sunday, June 23, 2013, 10:20 p.m.
Michael McGrady is helping lead the change necessary for Pennsylvanians to maintain the ability to make 911 calls.
McGrady, president of MCM Consulting Group in Peters, is working to consolidate 911 call centers in nine Western Pennsylvania counties by regionalizing technology at the Northern Tier Regional Telecommunications Project.
“This is just the beginning of the future,” said McGrady, 48. “If you can prove over a period of years that you can save money, from there you can do this across the commonwealth.”
The project, which began in 2011, is one example of the cost-saving measures recommended in legislation Gov. Tom Corbett signed last month. It's designed to act as a one-year stop-gap while lawmakers find ways to provide 911 call centers with long-term funding.
Without it, expenses will quickly outpace revenue, and counties will be left footing the bill, said Cory Angell, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.
“There will soon be no money left,” Angell said.
The state funds 70 percent of the 69 call centers in Pennsylvania from monthly $1 to $1.50 surcharges on landline and cellphone bills. Counties pay the balance of the cost.
“This legislation allows county 911 centers to streamline services and implement cost-cutting strategies,” said state Rep. Stephen Barrar, R-Chester and Delaware counties, who authored the bill. “Individuals who call into the system will not notice a difference in service.”
The Northern Tier project helped Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Crawford, Elk, Forest, Jefferson, McKean and Warren counties save more than $1.4 million to replace aging equipment and $225,000 a year in maintenance costs, McGrady said. Similar efforts are underway in some northeastern counties.
Allegheny County's 911 center in Point Breeze is a more local consolidated 911 center, incorporating over the years many smaller emergency call centers and Pittsburgh's call center in 2005.
Still, there remains room for consolidation, said Alvin Henderson, chief of the county's Department of Emergency Services.
“It's needed for the sustainability of the 911 program,” Henderson said.
Allegheny's 911 center is the second-most expensive in the state with an operating budget of $22 million a year — Philadelphia has a $40 million annual price tag — but is among the most efficient, PEMA records show.
Future 911 call-center funding options could include an increase in the phone surcharge but more likely a fee tacked onto something else, Barrar said.
“We need to find a funding source that is stable because we have seen diminished returns with the demise of telephone land lines,” Barrar said. “Whatever funding source we target must be sustainable over time.”
Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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