Look at this month's phone bill. You'll see a change in how much you are paying for 9-1-1 emergency service. Depending on where you live and the kind of phone you use, that bill may be going up or down.
The cost of 9-1-1 service is changing in Alabama, where the whole system got it start.
It's become second nature for nearly all of us, making a call to 9-1-1 with a quick response to our emergency at the other end. It was one of the greatest ideas of the 20th century and it continues to save countless lives. Before there was 9-1-1, cities and towns across America each had their own dialed, not pushbutton, seven digit number to reach police and fire departments.
That all changed with the first 9-1-1 call placed in Haleyville, Alabama. It was two o'clock, Friday afternoon, February 16, 1968. The call made from a special red phone. On one end: Alabama Speaker of the House Rankin Fite at City Hall. On the other end: U.S. Rep. Tom Bevill at the city's police station. It was a big deal then and still a big deal today. The town holds a festival every year to celebrate its place in history.
Haleyville's mayor Ken Sunseri said, "It's been instrumental all over the United States and in different countries to save lives."
For folks in Haleyville, 9-1-1 is a matter of pride and, like everywhere else in Alabama, a necessity. Not long ago Miranda Little had to call for help for her son Boone. "We were just in our den and he had a seizure and fell. I called 9-1-1. First time I ever used the service. They were there within minutes, did a great job, got him to the hospital and he was fine."
Even though 9-1-1 began in Haleyville, a lot has changed over the last 45 years. In fact Haleyville no longer has its own 9-1-1 center. Why? It's gotten more complicated. Back then you had to tell the operator where you were. Now, even if you hang up or can't speak, a computer displays your location, if you're on important medications or life support, even if you have pets.
That technology is expensive. Haleyville's police chief Kyle Reogas said, "When you look at the technology today cell phones, GPS coordinates and all these other things, this has moved a lot farther and a lot faster than most municipalities can afford to keep up with."0
To run a local center means staffing 24/7 with salaries, insurance and retirement benefits. Reogas said, "It's really not feasible for a municipality to operate that kind of center that really needs to be done at the county level or above."
Haleyville's calls are taken by dispatchers at the county seat in Double Springs, 20 miles away. That's where the screens display location maps and more detailed information. Higher costs mean counties like Winston must shoulder the cost instead of small towns.
So how does the technology work? Using an out of state phone with a different area code, we dialed 9-1-1 in Winston County. From any place in the county within just a few seconds the call went through.
That's a good thing because cell phones have become the dominant way we reach 9-1-1 these days. According to the National Center for Health Care Statistics, in 2007 15.8% of American households were "wireless only". The rest of us had at least one land line phone. In December of 2011 that number had more than doubled to 34%. So more than a third of households had only wireless service. By the end of 2012, 35.8% of us lived in wireless-only homes.
This explosive surge in cell phones created a problem: raising revenue. Howard Summerford, the 9-1-1 Director for Jefferson County, Alabama said, "60 to 70% of the 9-1-1- calls we receive come from cell phones. What happened over the years, cell phones were just not paying their way."
For decades each of Alabama's 88 emergency districts set their own rates for 9-1-1 service and if you owned a land line those rates were among the highest in the nation.
For instance, prior to October 2013, some counties like Fayette paid $4.98 a month per land line phone. In Jefferson County, they paid $4.35 per line. And in Birmingham land line customers paid 5% of their bills, no matter if they were residential or business. But cell phone customers across the state only paid 70 cents a month per line.
Summerford said, "What was happening over the years people were going more to cell phones than the land lines. So the number of land lines we had was decreasing. That was creating a revenue drop-off year by year that was really hurting the availability to provide the service."
The playing field wasn't level. So last spring in Montgomery, Alabama's 9-1-1 revenue stream was reformed in the legislature and the playing field was leveled. As of October 1, 2013, no matter where you live in the state, no matter what kind of phone you have, and no matter if you're a business or residential customer, the flat fee for everyone, every month is $1.60 per line.
A drop from $4.35 to $1.60 per line is a substantial savings for many businesses.
Summerford says these changes are fair and should keep revenues to his and other districts about the same as they try to keep pace with a changing world.
Even as all this technology has changed, Jefferson County has been taking calls and the same call center for 22 years, but not for much longer. A new five million dollar state of the art facility is expected to be up and running in Center Point by early 2014. The two million dollar building and three million dollars in technology includes personal lighting, temperature, and desk controls for dispatchers. That's designed to attract and keep the best folks to answer calls.
Within the next few months, callers to that facility will be able to use the next big thing in 9-1-1 service, using text messaging and video streaming multi media. Summerford said, " You can send a picture of that crash so emergency responders know how severe it is."
You can also send pictures and videos of suspects in crimes too. That will enhance the readiness of first responders across the state.
The more complicated, more precise and more expensive advances are designed to save lives and property.
That's a long way since the days of that first 9-1-1 call in Haleyville, 45 years ago.
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