John Shelton, Surry County director of emergency services, said that Surry County residents are charged 60 cents per month for every phone line that is connected in the county. However, Shelton is concerned that restrictions placed on the resulting funds inhibit the county’s ability to run an adequate 911 call center.
According to its website the state’s 911 Board, which controls the revenues created by the tax on phone lines, was established in 1998. Prior to that, local governments had the authority to set and collect a phone line tax in order to fund 911 center operations.
However, the board’s website states that the popularization of mobile phones forced the state to take over the collections, forming the 911 Board in 1998. The board and its sub-committees are comprised of members ranging from fire and police chiefs to representatives from AT&T and Time-Warner Cable.
Shelton said the board now collects the revenues from the tax and distributes funding based on the needs and activity of a county, not necessarily with regard to how much each county is paying into the system. Shelton said that last fiscal year Surry County received about $380,000 in 911 board funding, which comes to the county in monthly payments.
In short, Shelton’s concerns with 911 Board funding is that he is not able to use the funds for everything that is necessary to run the operations of the county’s 911 center, which Shelton says answers more than 350,000 calls in a year.
Shelton said there are a five basic aspects to ensuring each call for service is properly handled. The phases of handling a 911 call, according to Shelton, are how you receive the call, how you locate the call, accessing the pertinent history of the location and people involved, dispatching the appropriate entities to the call and recording the history after the call is brought to completion.
Shelton also said that the number one priority at the county’s 911 center is ensuring the county’s residents have access to 911 services.
Receiving the call
According to Shelton, the restrictions that the state’s 911 board places on telephone systems doesn’t seem to hinder his center’s ability to purchase what it needs to accept incoming calls.
The board allows counties to utilize their 911 board funds for phones, monitors and headsets. That funding category also can be used to purchase systems that make 911 services available to deaf people and interpretive services for non-English speaking folks.
Furniture such as desks and chairs are also allowable expenditures for counties when using 911 Board funding.
Locating the call
Shelton said that the 911 center’s ability to provide the information necessary for a first responder to find the location of a call is key to running successful operations. In order to do this the center’s staff must work to appropriately address and map locations in Surry County.
According to Shelton the center’s addressing needs are seemingly met by 911 Board funding. However, Shelton said that due to software restrictions only a portion of the mapping needs are met. Since the county’s 911 center must operate effectively, Shelton said that he must use county general fund dollars to supplement for that expense.
Shelton said that restrictions on 911 Board funding make the “accessing history” phase of a call difficult to pay for. Also, Shelton said that the 911 Board funding is not allowed to be spent on in-car computer systems on which first responders can receive historical information regarding an address or a person such as prior convictions.
“That’s really important in this day and age,” said Shelton. “Those guys need to know what they are getting into before they even get there.”
According to Shelton the 911 Board funding the county receives can be used for some radios. However, he said that the funding can’t be used to pay for computerized dispatch center to vehicle communications. Again, Shelton said Surry County taxpayers foot the bill for much of that equipment through appropriations from the county board of commissioners.
Given that a first responder’s ability to access historical information is important, so too is recording what happened on each call. Shelton again noted that restrictions on software hurt his center’s ability to pay for this phase of a call.
Last week Surry County’s request for a 911 Board grant to move its current 911 call center from its location in Dobson to the Human Services building in Mount Airy was denied. The county would have then maintained the current center as a back-up.
Shelton has relayed concerns regarding the sturdiness of the current structure in high winds and also concerns regarding the center being to small to house call center and EMS services to county commissioners.
Though Shelton said he is still looking at ways to make the move without the grant money, he won’t be able to use regular 911 Board funds to facilitate the move. “We are making that move to improve our services,” said Shelton, adding that 911 Board monies ought to be available to help facilitate the move.
While Shelton has a number of remaining concerns about restriction that are placed on 911 Board funding, he said that the board has broadened allowable expenditures in recent years. Shelton said that Surry County representatives to the North Carolina General Assembly, Rep. Sarah Stevens and Sen. Sirley Randleman, have played a pivotal role in lobbying efforts to “free-up” the funds.
Shelton also said that whether the operations of the current center are moved or not, the center is facing some major upgrades to equipment such as an out-dated “controller.” Shelton said that 911 Board funding will be able to be used for some upgrades and not for some others.
For Shelton the entire issue is pretty simple. “If the money is being collected from county residents it should go toward appropriately funding our county’s 911 center operations,” concluded Shelton.
Andy Winemiller is a staff writer at the Mount Airy News. Andy can be reached at (336) 415-4698 or [email protected]