911 fund diverted to balance budget

Posted Oct. 04, 2009, at 10:10 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A growing preference for cell phones over land lines in recent years is posing a problem for emergency services unheard of in the last century: 911 systems’ inability to receive text messages.

“Maine cannot handle text messaging right now,” said Maria Jacques, director of the Emergency Services Bureau of the Maine public Utilities Commission. “If you text 911 in Maine, I don’t know where it will go right now, but it won’t go to a PSAP [public safety answering point], so people need to call 911 on their phone.”

Jacques said her agency is studying ways to upgrade the state system to allow dispatch centers to receive text messages. The only text messages centers can receive now are over dedicated TTY-TDD devices. Those devices have been in use for years by deaf or mute Mainers to communicate over the phone.

Statistics compiled by the Federal Communications Commission show a dramatic shift in Maine, as in most of the country, from land lines to cell phones. In 2001, there were just more than 801,000 land lines in the state and just fewer than 400,000 cell phones. In the most recent report, land lines have declined to fewer than 650,000 and the number of cell phones increased dramatically to 882,000 lines.

“Maine is trying to prepare for the next step in 911 communications; they refer to this as ‘nextgen 911,’” Jacques said. She said texting would be part of the system’s new capabilities, but implementation is years away even after it is funded.

Funding is an issue because while fees on monthly phone bills have built cash reserves over the years, lawmakers have been using those reserves to help balance the state budget.

Rep. Ken Fletcher, R-Winslow, the lead GOP member of the Legislature’s Utilities Committee, said the panel grew so tired of the “raids” on the fund that it wrote legislation a few years ago to reduce the fee so it covered only current operating expenses of the 911 system.

“That was a bipartisan action,” he said. “There was a lot of concern about people paying fees for something when that money was being diverted.”

The National Emergency Number Association, the group of professionals who run the 911 systems across the country, says Maine is not alone. They say many states have diverted fees assessed to pay for 911 to bail out other programs.

The association released a policy statement earlier his year denouncing that practice.

“Commercial telecommunications companies are held to ‘truth-in-billing’ requirements to properly disclose the purposes of fees assessed on their customers,” said the group’s policy statement. “Unfortunately, some state and local governments do not have to meet similar ‘truth-in-billing’ requirements on their 911 fund expenditures, and increasingly some state governments are being less than honest with their constituents about the purposes of the 911 fees they impose.”

The group cites several instances where the ability to text for help has been crucial, and where calling on a phone would not have worked. For example in 2007, a kidnapping victim in Atlanta was able to text his brother, who contacted police and he was rescued.

“It is a matter of public safety,” said Sen. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, co-chairman of the Utilities Committee. “People are changing the way they communicate and we need to change the way they can access the 911 emergency systems.”

But, he acknowledged, the issue boils down to money. The Legislature “swept” the reserves that had built up in the fund to balance the budget for good reason — it needed the money to balance the budget.

The total cost of operating the 911 system by the state, both for the contract with FairPoint Communications and the bureau’s expenses, is about $9 million a year. Jacques said that while a cost study on upgrading the system has not been completed, it will be substantial.

“We have asked the 911 folks to figure out what we need to do to meet the changing technologies into the future,” Fletcher said. “We don’t want to look at just the next year or the next budget.”

Hobbins said there is no doubt the cost of upgrading the 911 system will be significant, but he believes the revenues are there if somehow they can be set aside and protected from other budget demands.

“We are now going to put a charge on wireless phones and that will generate hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said. “We did that as a matter of fairness, but it will raise additional funds.”

While many states and counties are in the planning process to handle text messages, only one county, in Iowa, is actually capable of receiving messages today.

Hobbins said the committee would certainly discuss the issue in the January session. He said he hopes they can draft legislation that will assure the ability to upgrade the 911 systems in Maine.

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