Summit County’s $30 million question, Part 1: Asking voters to rescue 911
This is the first installment in a four-part series on Summit County’s ballot item 1A.
In the age of cell phones, Summit County’s aging 911 system is struggling to keep in touch. However, if cell phones are the cause of many of the county’s emergency dispatch problems, they might also be part of the solution.
First, the problems: One issue besetting Summit’s emergency communications department, which is looking at roughly $2.8 million in expenditures this year, is increasingly unreliable funding.
The most obvious part of the funding puzzle is that property tax revenue still isn’t back to pre-recession levels. What many people might not know is that landlines are down 20 percent from 2007 to 2013. That downward trend is expected to continue as more and more people go wireless. In Summit County, 911 funding is partially provided by surcharges on newly created phone numbers, including both landlines and cell phone lines registered locally.
In 2014, those $1.50-per-line fees are expected to amount to about $619,000 for Summit County. That number is expected to drop over the next several years, as people forgo landlines and import their out-of-area cell phone numbers.
(Summit County has requested that the Colorado Public Utility Commission allow it to increase the surcharge to $1.95; however, officials say it is unclear where the commission will approve the fee increase or if such an increase will offset expected drops in revenue.)
The other 911-related problem the county faces is how its current system does not match up well with caller behavior patterns that have been shaped by new wireless technologies.
People are increasingly reliant on their smartphones, and not their sense of direction, to find their way around.
A frequent roadblock dispatchers encounter with callers is a lack of geographic awareness.
“What’s the location of the emergency?” is the first question a 911 dispatcher will ask. However, about 25 percent of callers cannot answer that question with any measure of specificity, county officials say. They see mountains. Trees.
“In a lot of cases, people really don’t have any idea where they are,” said Bill Pessemier, the director of communications for Summit County, in a 2013 interview. “If we don’t have that address, it can cause a delay in time, maybe a minute or two or three. People rely on the GPS capability. They don’t realize it’s not as accurate as they think. People still assume that when you call 911, dispatchers know exactly where they are.”
But in a time that is increasingly forsaking landlines — 80 percent of 911 calls now come from cell phones — it is becoming more difficult for dispatchers to ascertain where to send emergency responders. Even with GPS, cell phone locations are harder to pinpoint than landline locations.
Cell phones, particularly smartphones, do have one advantage over landlines, though. They can send texts and photos.
Many 911 callers assume dispatchers can receive such communications. However, Summit County’s current system, which is roughly 10 years old, cannot. With the exception of Larimer County, most 911 dispatch systems in the state cannot receive texts or photos.
For Summit’s emergency responders that kind of information can be critical in a place known for its vast swaths of rugged backcountry and poorly marked buildings, as well as hordes of bandwidth-hungry, iPhone-clutching visitors. A text also is more likely to get to a 911 dispatcher if the communications system is taxed during the high season.
“That’s a great benefit to public safety from a response standpoint,” assistant county manager Scott Vargo said.
A benefit that is not without a high cost, however.
THE BALLOT QUESTION
Referred Measure 1A, a ballot item bundling a host of funding needs, proposes to upgrade the county’s emergency dispatch system to a hardware-software package known as Next Generation 9-1-1. It will cost upwards of $1 million to install and implement.
In total, 1A is requesting $3.73 million in temporary annual funding for 911, ambulance service and water-quality upgrades over eight years, or almost $30 million before sunset. Though the ballot language does not specify the amount of funding each portion would receive, county officials say that an estimated $1.45 million per year will go toward updating Summit’s emergency dispatch system, $1.65 million is earmarked annually for ambulance service and $600,000 is set aside for water-quality improvement.
If approved, 1A would result in $19.25 per year per $100,000 of residential property value for eight years. The $1.45 million cut for 911 funding would pay for a system upgrade, two new positions, an expansion of the county’s communication tower network and additional capital expenses.
County officials say the funding will enable it to shave call response times significantly. According to the National Fire Protection Association, a 911 call should be processed in 90 seconds, 90 percent of the time. Summit County’s call time is currently double that, Vargo said.
Under the existing system, when dispatchers receive a 911 call they are prompted by a computer program to ask a series of questions to determine which agency needs to be sent to the scene. Once the computer makes that determination, the dispatcher has to put the caller on hold to notify the appropriate agency.
The process is much more automated in the Next Gen system, Vargo said, which allows dispatchers to identify the responding agency more quickly. Next Gen also knows how to sound the appropriate agency’s alarm, allowing dispatchers to remain on the line with the caller without interruptions.
Because the communications center serves as the hub for all emergency calls in the county, an intergovernmental agreement is in place that requires all agencies to contribute funds to the department’s operational costs. Those funds, however, are not substantial enough to pay for a $1 million capital project, Vargo said.
Joe Moylan contributed to this report.
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