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Missouri House Speaker Steven Tilley (R-Perryville) recently named an interim House committee to study ways to update and improve the state’s 911 emergency services system.
The stated purpose of the committee will be to update aging 911 systems and to look at ways to provide funding necessary to improve 911 emergency services.
In a recent news release on this subject, St. Louis area representative Chuck Gatschenberger (R-Lake St. Louis), who will serve as chairman of the committee, said 911 centers in 30 counties of Missouri do not have the technology necessary to locate a person calling on a cell phone. He went on to say that call centers in 17 counties do not have the technology to locate an individual calling on a landline.
Well, hello. That St. Louis legislator may really be surprised to learn that a few counties – including Douglas and Ozark – don’t even have a basic 911 system.
Options that will be considered by the committee will be adding a fee to cell phone users’ monthly bills to help fund 911 services, and/or some type of statewide fee for 911 services. Tilley says Missouri is the only state in the nation without a statewide fee for wireless 911 service.
The situation that 911 centers face is that phone companies have the technology to trace a call to a specific location when a call is made from a phone connected to a landline.
However, cell phones are not connected to a line, and therefore it is more difficult to determine exactly where that phone is, when the 911 call is made.
Technology, known as triangulating, uses multiple cell phone towers within a region to pinpoint the caller’s location. Another way to make the cell phone traceable is to install a GPS chip in each phone. This would be done by the manufacturer.
Another problem with cell phones is making the call go to the proper 911 center. Calls made from a telephone connected to a landline can be directed to a specific location. But with a cell phone, the signal may hit any one of several towers, and the tower may or may not be in the county or region where the caller is located.
If I make a 911 call from my cell phone in Ava, I will get a 911 dispatcher, somewhere, depending on which tower my call hits. In fact, I’m told a 911 call made on a landline from Ava will go to some 911 dispatch center. I haven’t tried it because I don’t think that’s the right thing to do if I don’t have an actual emergency. The point is, we have no control over where the call will go since the Ava telephone exchange in Douglas County has no established 911 dispatch center.
I’ve never been a big fan of 911 simply because of the friction created between agencies – the 911 board, county commission and city council – as well as confusion about how calls are directed to the proper emergency unit. Phone calls made directly to the Sheriff’s Office, the Ava Police Department or the ambulance dispatch center (all are answered 24 hours a day) will generally get the quickest response.
However, there are two major factors that make me pro-911.
First, it’s a common number that everyone knows. Contrary to some of the blonde jokes we’ve heard, you don’t have to look up the number.
Second, it forces the community to establish systematic physical addresses for everyone.
Having been involved with the volunteer fire department for over 20 years and serving for several years on the ambulance board, I see the need for a physical address system that people know and use.
In the city of Ava everyone has a physical address, but few know what it is because they don’t have to use it for anything – except to contact the ambulance, fire department or law enforcement…and perhaps the UPS driver. If mail is delivered to the residence by a rural carrier, the post office address is in no way relative to the physical street address.
And when you get outside the city, there is no physical address system at all. The best we can do is a county road numbering system (with most of the road signs in place) and a handy list of landmarks.
Knowing Douglas County voters as I do, I realize the only way we will ever have a 911 system is for the state to mandate and implement it – which also won’t go over well with county residents.
Nevertheless, establishing a county-wide addressing system and making folks use that address to get their mail, would be a tremendous step forward for our county’s emergency responders.
I will be watching with interest the working of this interim committee that has been appointed by Speaker Tilley.