“When people call on land-line phones, we know the caller's location and whose number it is at the E-911 Center; but we have no way to get that information from cell phone callers; without the technology available to remedy this situation, wireless callers are at risk,” Stewart said. “Cell phone calls take a lot more time and energy, because often the people don't know where they are and there's no way for us to locate them.”
Stewart related a recent incident when a visitor at a friend's house made a 911 cell phone call to report the friend in medical distress. “She was so disoriented that she gave a west street address when the actual address was east-14 blocks apart. That delayed us several minutes because first we had to determine that she wasn't where she said she was, and then we had to find her friend's house,” Stewart said. “If somebody is not breathing for four to six minutes, brain cells die.”
To purchase the specialized equipment for locating cell phone E-911 callers and to bolster the decreasing revenue source used to operate the current E-911 system, the Altus/Jackson County E-911 Trust Authority requested a 50-cent-per-month surcharge on each cellular telephone, and Jackson County commissioners placed the following proposition on Tuesday's county-wide election ballot:
“Shall the County of Jackson, Oklahoma, levy and collect a wireless telephone fee in the amount of 50 cents per month for each wireless telecommunications connection, defined as each 10-digit access or telephone number assigned to a customer, within Jackson County as determined by the subscriber's place of primary use; the funds collected to be used solely for services related to nine-one-one (911) emergency wireless telephone services as allowed by law?”
Mayor T.L. Gramling encouraged citizens of Altus and other Jackson County communities to vote. He said many people misunderstood the cost in 2004 when citizens defeated a similar measure. Many thought the charge would be 50 cents per cell phone call, when in reality the proposition called for a 50-cent-per-month fee on each cellular telephone bill.
According to Altus Police Chief Mike Patterson, who oversees the E-911 Center in the Altus Police Department, the city of Altus in fiscal year 2006-07 budgeted $455,848 for E-911 Center expenses-salaries, uniforms, office supplies, equipment repair, etc. However, income from E-911 collections on land lines--the only revenue source for operating the countywide E-911 Center-- will total only $145,174. City of Altus taxpayers currently subsidize the shortfall, but a 50-cent monthly charge would enable cell phone customers to pay a larger share of the cost.
Land line telephone users now support the system by paying an average monthly fee of less than one dollar. As the number of landlines continues to decline, so does the revenue to support the E-911 system. “The revenue stream for E-911 is decreasing as people turn off their land-line phones in favor of cellular phones; that money, now in steady decline, never comes back,” Patterson said. “Every month a dozen or more people disconnect their land lines and just use a cell phone. It's possible over the next several years that we could not support the E-911 system that we have now.”
Patterson said all E-911 calls for the entire county come to the E-911 Center in the Altus Police Department, where two dispatchers answer calls for both the county-wide E-911 and the Altus Police Department 24 hours a day, seven days a week. More than 50 percent of the calls come from cell phones; however, cell phones users pay nothing to support the system. “It's really only fair that 911 cell phone users pay their share,” he said. “The (federally mandated) technology to support the cell phones is much more expensive than for land lines and we need this new 21st Century technology.”
According to Patterson, current equipment as big as a large home refrigerator would be replaced by a unit the size of a personal computer tower, which could be quickly moved to a new location in an emergency such as a tornado.
The Oklahoma Legislature set the 50-cent monthly fee, and local governments cannot increase the amount. The funds--earmarked for purchasing, upgrading, maintaining and operating the 911 Center--will also enhance the land-line system. “Every cell phone manufactured after 2004 already has a chip the size of a baby aspirin, keyed by satellite to give the phone's longitude and latitude when the user calls E-911, but we don't have the ability to receive it at the police station,” Patterson said.
City Councilman Don Johnson was mayor of Altus when the city installed the county-wide enhanced 911 system in 1996. “I think we need it very badly for cell phones too. I don't want someone who needs an ambulance to dial 911 and then go unconscious and we can't find them,” Johnson said. “Right now, we don't make enough money to cover the expense of operating the 911 system.”
City Councilman Dean Garrett serves on the Altus/Jackson County E-911 Trust Authority (chaired by City Councilman Bob Beers). Garrett said the 50 cents added to each cell phone bill would total $6 per year. “That's cheap insurance for a whole year, knowing they can locate you if you have a problem and need them,” he said. “I could be lying out somewhere down on my farm and they could find me; it's the cheapest insurance you can buy today. The sooner we can get it approved, the sooner we can order the equipment and make it available to the public.”
Jackson County Commissioner Dale Dunn thought citizens defeated the 50-cent monthly fee in 2004 because the proposition appeared on the ballot next to a state question calling for increased gasoline and diesel fuel taxes. “It was probably a bad choice to put it on that ballot,” Dunn said. “The bottom line is that we didn't educate the people of the county so that they knew exactly what they were voting for at the time.”
Dunn said he is working with Patterson and Stewart to make certain that Jackson County residents understand the ballot issue and he has talked to several people in every community in the county. “We have not run into any naysayers. We absolutely have not found anybody against it,” Dunn said. “Education is the key in our opinion.