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Brother Can You Spare A Dime?
Author: Barry Furey
Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
By Barry Furey
I borrowed the title of this month’s column from a song of the same name that was written during the Great Depression. My parents lived through that one, and by all accounts, our current fiscal crisis doesn’t even come close to comparison. People were selling apples on street corners, and chambers of commerce went so far to erect billboards stating, “Jobless men keep going. We can’t take care of our own.” I also doubt that there will be any movie classics like The Grapes of Wrath that spring out of our existing mess, but all of that doesn’t make it any more pleasant for communications managers to live through.
While it has always been fashionable to talk about doing more with less, all you have to do is to look inside this issue to know the real impact that the economy has on our profession. First, we have the promise of Next Generation 9-1-1 somewhere around the bend. Now, how close it is, or what it is may not be universally agreed upon or understood. Perhaps NENA (National Emergency Number Association) summed it up best by saying that we will take calls “from any device.”
So, while we are warming up our crystal balls to gaze into the future, along comes the 9-1-1 Fund Raiders. Not to be confused with Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, this group truly robs without a gun by transferring money from state 9-1-1 accounts into the general fund. Moneys that were once designated for Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) are then diverted to potholes and pet projects. Why does this happen? In these cash-strapped times, any activity that has historically maintained a high fund balance is any easy target for diversion. It’s as simple as that. What’s not so simple is why many 9-1-1 funds have a seeming surplus when there are increasing demands for services. This can be attributed in part to carriers not requesting budgeted reimbursements for cost recovery and restrictive spending guidelines.
Some in the industry may also question if our collection rates are too high, but since these rates are not universal, that is difficult to say. They are clearly not excessive when compared to the job to be done, however, that also raises additional puzzlers: Just exactly what is 9-1-1, and how much does it cost? I am currently sitting on a committee in North Carolina that is trying to answer these and other pressing concerns as part of our state’s first 9-1-1 plan. While I can’t tell you the answers to these, I can tell you that within our group our personal views are certainly not universal. That being said, we are fairly much in agreement that 9-1-1 funding should be applied to both the receipt and delivery of calls, based on the general concept that nothing ever gets dead-ended in the center.
The state has also retained an institute of higher learning to help research the funding issue, and it’s going to take some horsepower to define. Because few of us budget in the same manner, charges borne directly by one PSAP may never even appear on the spreadsheet of another. Some common expenditures that are handled differently depending upon jurisdiction are charges for building space, utilities, computers, and seven-digit phone service. Many centers pay these directly while others never see the invoices because they are handled elsewhere as a general government cost of business.
The challenge here is to find a formula that is both equitable and sustainable. My personal bias leads me to believe that the realization of Next Generation will sound the death knell for our current device based billing. If I don’t know the location and owner of every device that’s out there, how can I possibly collect? You don’t have to look past pre-paid cellular to see that the problem is already here. But again, if you don’t know what your true expenses are to begin with you are clearly at a disadvantage.
I don’t think it takes the previously mentioned crystal ball to determine that Next Generation is going to cost us some cash, in terms of both networks and CPE (customer premise equipment.) Somewhere along the line we’re also going to have to look long and hard at cost containment. Increasing use of cooperative purchasing as well as outright consolidation of small to mid-sized centers will be on the table. Strategies such as RoIP (Radio over Internet Protocol) will go a long way toward solving the technical issues, but the Marquis of Queensbury rules may apply when it come to sorting out the politics.
Which leads us to our final issue; people. In July 2009, California received recommendations for their strategic 9-1-1 plan. The study and associated document recognized the high cost of staffing, discussed the great number of PSAPs (481), and took a close look at the ability of these PSAPs to meet NENA suggested call answering standards. Obviously, a number of them did not. But this should certainly not be news to anyone, nor should the problem assumed to be associated with any single state. Until we get enough telecommunicators on duty during the current generation, we can’t afford to worry about the next. As the man says, “pay me now or pay me later.” Brother, can you spare a dime?
Barry Furey has been involved in public safety for more than 40 years, having managed 9-1-1 centers in four states. A life member of APCO International, he is the current director of the Raleigh-Wake County (NC) Emergency Communications Center.