Gov. Tom Corbett recently signed a bill that gives 911 systems across the state a one-year warning that they will no longer be able to turn to the state for all the funding they want.
House Bill 583, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Barrar (R-Chester), provides for a one-year transition period to a system that will base disbursements on funds that have actually been collected through the 911 surcharge rather than simply fully funding all requests.
The legislation is in response to a rollover payment problem the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) has been dealing with for years. A law enacted in the early '90s required PEMA to give 911 centers funding for equipment, personnel and training costs regardless of how much money PEMA had available. Surcharges from landlines and later cell phones made up the majority of revenue available for PEMA to distribute.
With that limited amount of funding available, PEMA began to work with the 911 centers on an “IOU” basis, where the state promised the counties that it will supply them with the remainder of their funding request when a new pot of money becomes available — creating a cycle of constant debt and underfunding.
These backward payments have gotten so bad that 911 centers are using up all available revenue for the fiscal year in substantially less than 12 months.
Glenn Cannon, director of PEMA, said 911 systems across the state are close to bankruptcy because of unnecessary costs and spending by the emergency response centers.
“In your life, when do you ever say, ‘I want this. You have to give it to me whether you have enough money to do it or not.’ It was a function of the law that we live under that was created to build a system, not to operate and maintain a system,” Cannon said.
As of 2011, users of pre-paid cell phones, along with contract cell phones and landlines have been required to pay a $1 per month surcharge that goes to PEMA. That money is held by the state and given to 911 centers based on funding requests. Over the last several years, the amount of money being requested from the state by emergency response centers has exceeded available funds.
Cannon said PEMA needs to stay on top of emerging communication technologies to bring in revenue for the struggling 911 centers.
“We don’t care how you call 911,” Cannon said. “If you do, we want the dollar that people pay for that. So, if you turn to your television in the future and say, ‘Call 911,’ then we want a dollar for that.”
The proposed legislation will not increase surcharge rates for cell phones and landlines, but, according to Cannon, it is a possibility as the bill expires in 2014.
The bill also promotes cost savings by giving PEMA the ability to enable joint purchasing and regionalization of 911 response systems.
According to Cannon, there are 69 “switches” in Pennsylvania that take in calls and distribute them to the proper 911 operators. These switches are beginning to break down and replacing all of them would cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” Cannon said.
Taking advantage of new technologies in an effort to lower costs, counties are adding a small number of switches, but connecting them through a broadband network. This means the 911 system no longer depends on individual connections but works as an application connecting the counties together, cutting down on call waiting times and ensuring all callers are connected with a responder.
Cannon said this legislation came with a sense of urgency.
“When the public needs help, they call 911,” Cannon said. “If there’s a fire, if they need a police car, if someone’s having a heart attack, if their home is being burglarized or robbed, they call 911 and that system has to answer because that’s where they get their help.
The legislation had strong bipartisan support and was passed unanimously in the House, having only one dissenting vote in the Senate.