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N.C. Lacks Standards for 911 Centers

GREENVILLE, N.C.-- Widespread use of the 911 phone number has greatly simplified the process of contacting first responders in an emergency. Yet as telecommunications technology becomes more complex -- with text messaging, wireless e-mail and Voice over Internet Protocol on the rise -- the 911 process faces new complications, especially when it comes to determining caller location.

While first responders (police, fire and EMS) stand ready to assist, the process of locating and dispatching a 911 call is problematic because North Carolina currently has no minimum standards for 911 centers.

Citizens generally believe that dialing 911 from a cell phone will bring them help as needed. Different counties throughout the state, however, operate 911 response centers using assorted technologies, resulting in diverse operating procedures with varying results.

These differences in technological capabilities and operating procedures can create a host of problems, from a delay in 911 services to no help arriving at all in crisis situations.

For example, some counties offer emergency medical response, which allows the call taker to provide pre-arrival medical instruction in situations ranging from heart attacks to gunshot wounds. Unfortunately, other counties do not offer this lifesaving response.

A NEW STATE LAW SEEKS TO REMEDY THIS PROBLEM.

Session Law 2007-383 ensures that all voice services will contribute to the 911 system. It will provide uniformity in the quality of service and the level of 911 charges across voice communications service providers.

Up to now, land-line 911 fees have been higher than 911 fees for cellular users -- and Internet phone services were not required to pay the fees at all. Moreover, land-line 911 fees were disbursed to the individual county and were often used for purposes unrelated to 911.

Starting Jan. 1, land-line, cellular and Internet providers will be required to collect and submit a uniform monthly 70 cent fee per customer. The law further aims to modernize and improve the 911 system through establishment of a statewide 911 board. A major goal of the board will be to establish minimum standard for call centers.

While small counties may fear loss of control and revenue, this new statute will allow the state to narrow the gap between 911 technology and local 911 operation and implementation. By consolidating fees and their disbursing, and monitoring cost and performance, the 911 board can ensure that each county meets minimum standards.

The law will ease the burden previously put on small rural counties. Just as tax revenues are shared statewide, fees collected will be shared between large and small counties. State oversight will ensure that those fees collected for 911 will be used for that purpose. In addition, economies of scale should lower costs for everyone.

Putting the fees together in a single fund should help all counties provide the capability to call for emergency help to anyone who dials 911. The law will ensure that new communications technologies currently lacking access to 911-- for example text and instant messaging -- will have access in the future. Finally, and most importantly, the law ensures that residents and visitors will receive uniform emergency call services, whether calling from home or traveling across the state.

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