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News : 911 Emergency Telephone Act Overhaul Discussed
Harrisburg, PA, USA, Feb 17, 2015 -- Pennsylvania lawmakers plan to overhaul the state’s 911 Emergency Telephone Act to adapt to changing technology and create a fee structure for system upkeep. State Rep. Steve Barrar, majority chairman of the House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, is opposed to raising the monthly emergency call surcharge to $2 per month.
"I don’t foresee under any circumstances a $2 fee coming out of this committee," Barrar, R-160, of Upper Chichester, said during a public hearing on the drafted bill, mentioning a more realistic approach would increase the current fee to $1.50 or $1.75 per device per month. "I think it’s almost impossible that you will see anything more than that."
Pennsylvania’s 911 Emergency Telephone Act was created in 1990 to provide a toll-free number, 911, for state residents to gain direct access to first responders in case of an emergency. The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency provided technical oversight, while the state’s Department of Community Affairs controlled the program.
The emergency communication legislation was established during the time of landline phone systems and dial-up Internet access. Cellphones were not as commonly used during the end of the 20th century as they are today. Lawmakers are now forced to make legislative amendments to include technological advancements.
Over the years, technology advancements were addressed by adding additional provisions to the bill, yet, the $1 surcharge established for landline calls remained the same. It wasn’t until 2003 that a collection was allowed from all residents who can call the emergency line from an owned cellphone. The same fee was then established for broadband phone service users in 2008.
The changing technology comes at a cost and several lawmakers deliberating on the language of the drafted bill felt the $2 fee, or establishing a percent-base fee, would better cover cost associated with managing and maintaining "next-generation services." Others felt the 100 percent tax increase is too high.
The idea is to cover not only costs connected to maintaining emergency call centers, but to create an infrastructure that would support text-message capabilities, video calls, and nonhuman calls from systems like OnStar or iPads.
Pennsylvania residents incur that cost from the wireless service providers. PEMA collects those funds sends it to the state treasurer using 2 percent of those fees for departmental expenses, according to PEMA’s website.
"We think that $2 fee is a bridge too far. It’s a very significant increase on the tax we collect for the commonwealth from our customers," said Frank Buzydlowski, director of State Government Relations for Verizon Communications.
He said broadband and telecommunication customers are the ones that would be hit with the higher fee from providing companies. Implementing a flat fee of $1.60 per device per month is more reasonable when calculating the statewide average, he said.
Fees across Pennsylvania vary based on county population. Only five counties — Delaware, Montgomery, Allegheny, Bucks and Philadelphia counties — pay $1 per device per month. Thirty counties pay $1.25 and 34 pay $1.50.
Delaware County Emergency Communications and Management Center, located in Lima, handles more than 1 million calls annually, according to its website. The county also has a community warning system that notifies residents of an emergency.
Increased cellular use also puts pressure on call centers that are handling a higher volume of cellphone calls from the scene of an accident. Some argued the $2 fee would level out costs associated with emergency dispatch. Consolidating existing services between counties is another cost-savings option, but it would not eliminate the need to increase the call fee.
"We have a fee that is 25 years old," said Doug Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.
He said the fee structure created in 1990 didn’t take into consideration the growth in technology, making the $1 per month increase reasonable.
"While I do not agree that the 911 surcharge should be increased to $2 monthly or per each prepaid purchase as is written in the currently drafted bill, I do support a lower surcharge fee increase that will adequately address the financial needs of our county 911 centers, thereby enhancing the public safety of our communities," Barrar said. "Of course, this 911 surcharge fee increase must be developed with the taxpayer in mind."
Barrar also said he agrees that county 911 centers should receive reimbursement funds out of the state 911 call center funds on a quarterly basis versus the end of each fiscal year.
"This will empower our county-elected officials to better plan for the fiscal needs of their 911 centers," he said.
Another public hearing on this legislation is scheduled for March 18 in Harrisburg. The hearing in March will be the sixth held to discuss amending the 911 Emergency Telephone Act.
PEMA, Emergency Preparedness Committee members and legislative stakeholders plan to have the amended version on Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk before June 30.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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Published: Friday, February 20, 2015