Attorney Mike Mahn, who represents the 911 Communications District, told Cleveland City Council members Monday the local system is “… if not the best, it’s in a group of a handful of districts with the highest level of public safety in Tennessee. Tennessee is actually the national leader in 911.”
Mahn made the comments in response to a request from the Council for more information as it considers an additional $142,000 from the city and county to help fund the call center that dispatches all emergency responses in the county.
When Cleveland and Bradley County unified 15 years ago, surcharges on hardwired telephones were almost exclusively used to fund the call center. As cellphone usage increased, people began disconnecting telephones in the house in about 2001. Though the use of landlines decreased, funding still went up.
“Because of that, the 911 district was able to absorb the increased cost of operations and keep a freeze on the revenue that was requested,” Mahn said. “Unfortunately, in the past few years, cellphones have started leveling off.”
The rate charged on cellphones has not been changed in 15 years. Cellphones accounted for about 3 percent of the call volume to 911 centers statewide in 1998. Today, about 80 percent of calls come from cellphones and the surcharge has not been changed.
“We think the cellphone rate should be adjusted, which would boost revenue and hold down the pressure to increase local government funding,” he said.
A previous effort in the General Assembly failed and it could be up to three years before there is a chance of increasing the surcharge on cellphones.
“But in any event, that pressure still remains and that’s the reason the districts have appealed to local governments to help adjustments and meet those needs,” Mahn said. “The call volume continues to rise as population grows.”
Added pressures are coming from Internet-based technology dubbed “Next Generation 911.” It will connect about 160 call centers in Tennessee through fiber optics.
“It’s going to open up the floodgates for text, photographs, video; a lot more data is going to be flooding into our 911 centers and quite frankly, I’m not sure anyone has done a careful analysis of the impact that’s going to have. It’s coming. We can’t stop that technology and it’s going to present even more challenges to our staff,” he said.
The communications district was formed 25 years ago and emergency dispatching was unified 15 years ago when George Wood was city manager and Donna Hubbard was county executive. At that time, Charleston was dispatched from the sheriff’s department.
The city and sheriff were dispatched out of different call centers or Public Safety Answering Points. He compared separate call centers to ships passing in the night.
“When the district was first formed and we had money, we would buy equipment for both points. It didn’t take us long to realize that we could buy more equipment of a higher caliber if we had one center,” Mahn said.
The city of Cleveland and Bradley County funded the consolidated call center that was built on property belonging to Cleveland Utilities. Charleston is a 1 percent participant.
“It was a model of city and county government cooperation,” Mahn said.
Since the city and county unified, five of the 20 communications districts Mahn represents have followed the local example. The reasons for unification are to hold down the tax needed to support emergency dispatching and “uplift the public safety part of it professionally,” he said. “Really, when you think about it, public safety starts at that call center.”