Hearing focuses on 911 Emergency Telephone Act

LEWISTOWN – The term “regionalization” came up time and time again during a hearing for the Pennsylvania House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee to address the 911 Emergency Telephone Act.

The hearing was held on Tuesday at the Pennsylvania Fire Academy in Lewistown and several people testified as to what they would like to see in the rewrite of the new 911 ETA, also known as House Bill 583, which is expected to be brought to the floor during the next legislative session in the fall.

Centre County 911 Director Dan Tancibok and Blair County Commissioner Diane L. Meling spoke about regionalization of 911 services as a possible cost saving alternative for counties.

After the hearing, Mifflin and Juniata counties emergency services directors Phil Lucas and Allen Weaver said eight counties in central Pennsylvania are exploring the idea of consolidating services. Those counties are Centre, Mifflin, Juniata, Huntingdon, Blair, Fulton, Bedford and Tioga.

Lucas said there are many benefits to regionalization and that start-up funding is one of the many issues into which the counties are looking.

Weaver also thinks the idea of a regional approach to emergency services is a great concept, but there are many roadblocks to overcome to implement the idea.

Tancibok testified that one such regionalization project taking place in Pennsylvania is in the Northern Tier and includes nine counties.

“The Northern Tier Regional Next Generation 911 Telecommunications project is a prime example of counties and regions migrating from the individual silo model to working together to create regional network and improving technology and operations while saving cost,” Tancibok said.

Tancibok said this “silo” model, currently in place in Pennsylvania has pitted county against county as they compete for the limited funds available to them.

That “competition,” said Pennsylvania Emergency Management Director Glenn Cannon is one of the things that drives up the operating costs of 911 centers.

Although funding for 911 centers continues to fall short of the need, Cannon believes the problems is not on the revenue side of the coin, it’s with the expenditure side.

The funding for 911 centers comes from surcharge fees on wireless and hard line phone bills, that range from $1 to $1.50 per month depending on the class of county in which you reside.

“Simply raising fees without fixing the structuring of the system will just be kicking the can down the road,” Cannon said.

Cannon also said the current system has “sadly led to some manipulation,” which tends to favor one group over another.

Several county officials testified, including Snyder County Commissioner Malcolm Derk that when funding for a 911 center comes up short, county commissioners are forced to dip into funds generated from property taxes.

“I compare this funding issue somewhat to the auto industry. No one would expect to be able to purchase today’s fuel efficient, mandated safety standard and high-tech-feature-loaded automobile at the 1990 sticker price. So how can we expect our customers to receive 2013 state-of-the-art 911 services at a 1990 cost, without any inflationary adjustment – let alone a necessary adjustment based on changes in communication technology that have occurred over the past 23 years?” Cumberland County Commissioner Barbara Cross asked.

County officials also testified to burdensome and repetitive audits they have to provide each year, which can cost a significant amount of money.

Another topic that came up during the hearing was that of transferring to a digital 911 system, which would allow things like text messaging.

Cannon said there are currently some pilot programs exploring the digital platform and eventually he foresees everyone will be using this particular system.

Frank Buzydlowski, Director of State Government Relations for Verizon Communications said 69 percent of 911 calls in Pennsylvania were made through a wireless device last year.

Furthermore, Dave Kerr, Regional Vice President for AT&T, testified that last year there were more text messages sent than voice mails through wireless service providers.

Specific safety issues also came to light during testimony, including during comments made by Meling.

“As 911 centers continue to upgrade all the technological aspects of the communications center, the most important part of the operation must not be over looked, and that is people,” Meling said.

Meling said depleted funding has led to significant turnover in Blair County’s 911 center over the years, which has come at an additional loss in revenue from training hours invested in personnel.

“All the technology in the world is worthless, unless people are properly trained and adequately compensated to operate it,” she said.

In keeping with the safety theme and closing out the hearing, was Staff Attorney Elizabeth Marx with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“The proactive nature of your inquiry is encouraging, and we are confident in this Committee’s ability to strike an appropriate balance between the many interests at stake,” she said.

Marx said a key component of PCADV’s work is ensuring that all victims of domestic violence have unencumbered access to life-saving emergency response services.

“As the gentlemen told us text messaging, email and social media are now a primary method of communication for many members of the community, so it is critical that the 911 system be equipped to field and respond to alternative communications,” Marx said.

“The lives of victims and children may be at stake,” she added.

Marx also spoke about the “double-edged sword” of GPS tracking systems on phones. Many times PCADV advises victims of domestic violence to turn off this tracking mechanism on their phones because the abuser could conceivably use that to stalk them. The flip side of that is the same signal could be used to help someone in need of assistance.

Chairman of the Committee, Stephen Barrar said he was confident they could put together a good bill.