Missouri Lags in Emergency 911 Coverage



Jim Sullinger | | Tuesday, October 30, 2007

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Rescuers were able to find a woman injured in an April accident that killed her husband in far southwest Kansas because dispatchers traced her location through her cell phone.

The woman might not have survived had the accident happened elsewhere, especially in rural Missouri, where few counties have working enhanced 911 systems, and it might have taken hours for police to find her.

Missouri s emergency communications officials say the state of E-911 in Missouri is embarrassing when compared with surrounding states such as Kansas with statewide revenue sources.

Rep. Mark Bruns, a Jefferson City Republican, heads a special committee that held hearings on the issue across the state over the summer.

We heard over and over again horror stories from dispatchers, he said.

Bruns remembers one case in particular from Johnson County, Mo.

The lady was being beaten, and all she could say was, Help me, he s going to kill me, and the cell phone went dead, he said. To this day they don t know where it came from.

Bruns said people who own cell phones expect to be found when they re in trouble. They might be surprised if they re vacationing at Lake of the Ozarks and think that will work.

Missouri officials said they are the only state in the nation without a statewide funding source for enhanced 911 -- commonly known as E-911.

All the counties within the Kansas City metropolitan area have the capability, but only 21 of Missouri s 114 counties have completed installing the system.

Officials in those counties said they don t have enough local money to do the job.

Kansas, on the other hand, has 71 counties out of 105 that have E-911 capability since a 50-cent monthly cell-phone fee went into effect July 1, 2004.

Steven Eden, E-911 director for Camden County in Missouri, said officials there are working on an E-911 system, but it is far from operational.

Our problem is having the money to pay for it, he said.

Randy Griffis, Pettis County E-911 coordinator, said his county will have E-911 capability soon because county voters approved a small sales tax.

He said the system will be fully operational within the next 30 to 60 days. Bruns said several Missouri counties have opted for local E-911 funding through a sales tax.

Bruns said Gov. Matt Blunt and legislative leaders are concerned about the situation and looking to his committee for a recommendation by Dec. 1.

The governor is very concerned about the problem, and we ve been communicating on a regular basis, Bruns said. Of course, I don t have an easy solution, and I haven t heard one from his office either.

The lawmaker said the state needs to find $40 million for one year and then $10 million annually thereafter. One alternative would be to impose a tariff on cell phones legislatively. That could be done next year without violating the Hancock Amendment, which limits the amount of revenue to the state, Bruns said.

One way or another we re going to have to get to that point, whether we do it legislatively or put it back on a statewide ballot, he said.

Missourians got a chance to vote on such a fee in 1999 and 2002, but rejected it both times.

In Kansas, lawmakers approved a 50-cent monthly fee on wireless phone bills to allow rural counties to afford the E-911 systems.

Former Rep. Carl Krehbeil, a Moundridge Republican, led the effort in the Kansas House. He called it the most important accomplishment of his years in office.

This is a public safety issue, he said. It has undoubtedly saved lives in our state.

Sen. Karin Brownlee, an Olathe Republican, led the effort in the Kansas Senate.

However, she noted that an audit last year found that the state might have collected as much as $15 million too much. Another audit is scheduled next year.

Walt Way, emergency communications director for Johnson County, Kan., said 911 revenues from hard-wired telephones have been dropping as more people switch to wireless phones.

Fifty-eight percent of the 911 calls received by his dispatchers come from wireless phones, Way said.

To reach Jim Sullinger, call 816-234-7701 or send e-mail to jsullinger@kcstar.com

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