Funding source for Pa. 911 call centers dwindling, officials warn

    Pennsylvania’s 69 emergency call centers are being fully funded, but the state’s top emergency manager says a budget crisis is imminent.

    Part of the funding that goes to the state’s 911 call centers comes from a fee on wireless devices. Counties report a drop in that revenue.

    It’s striking some lawmakers, such as Rep. Tom Killion, R-Chester, as odd.

    He says he doesn’t want to see an increase in the fee, but he can’t believe it’s not netting big revenue for the state’s emergency centers.

    “I go back, 10, 12 years in my house — we had one landline. Now, there’s four iPods, there’s four or five cell phones,” Killion said. “If you extrapolate that across the commonwealth, you’d think the numbers would be off the charts. I mean, are we leaving something on the table?”

    That’s certainly possible, according to Glenn Cannon, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. Cannon said the costs of the call centers have risen faster than the fee revenues.

    He suggests any changes to the wireless fee make it what he calls “technology agnostic” — so that it’s not tied to any ephemeral communication devices.

    Better regulation sought

    As county officials clamor for a change to the funding source of Pennsylvania’s call centers, state officials say what’s needed isn’t more money, but stricter rules for spending it.

    Cannon, who likens county requests to Cadillacs when Fords will do, said he suspects they’re using the money on unrelated expenditures.

    “People have learned how to game the system to maximize the revenue they need. We’ve built out the whole system, and we’re spending more money than ever,” Cannon said. “And the purpose of the money was to build out the system, so where’s all that money going?”

    To pay for equipment and data, as well as operational costs, answers Doug Hill, head of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

    He adds the system isn’t fully built out, and still needs investments.

    “Now we are getting people who are contacting 911 wanting to send video, we’ve had calls come in by text message, we even dispatched one call based on an alert coming in over Facebook,” Hill said.

    Hill, who said the counties do audits with the state to ensure the spending is in keeping with state guidelines, said there could be ways to cut costs further.

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