Holt County 911 seeking upgrades
Jan 19, 2013 (St. Joseph News-Press - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
City dwellers often take for granted the numbers 9-1-1 and the help they bring.
In rural areas, county governments and law enforcement officials must clear monetary and technological hurdles to bring their service to the standards people have come to expect.
Holt County's 911 system became a topic of discussion after County Clerk Kathy Kunkel decided in December to let someone else take over the task of assigning 911 addresses to new homes and businesses.
"There's no reason to think 911 isn't going to work when someone calls in," Ms. Kunkel said. "We just shifted some administrative roles."
Although the move did not affect the county's ability to provide emergency service, it shed light on the many hats that must be worn by employees in counties that are unable to hire a full-time 911 coordinator. For example, the clerk's office had assigned new addresses, while the assessor's office creates new plat maps that are used for 911 service, among other things. Meanwhile, the sheriff's office takes care of dispatch service out of a space in the aging county jail.
Though the idea seems foreign to those from urban areas, many rural residents did not have standard addresses with a number and street name prior to 911 service coming to the area. People who have lived in the area for years may not be familiar with their new 911 address, which makes it important for counties to have tracking equipment to find a caller's location if they do not know it or cannot convey it to a dispatcher.
Sheriff Scott Wedlock described the technological problems his county must confront.
The county upgraded in recent years to "Phase I" tracking technology that displays a phone number when wireless callers dial 911, so dispatchers can call back if needed. Phase I also allows calls to be tracked to a certain quadrant of the cellular tower that received the call. The county next hopes to upgrade to Phase II, which allows multiple towers to triangulate the caller's location to within 50 to 300 meters.
"This wasn't so much of an issue when people used landlines, but now more people are going the cellular route, so the systems have to change," Mr. Wedlock said.
Spotty cellular service and slow Internet connections can leave counties at the mercy of technology they cannot control. For example, Ms. Kunkel said she once made a test 911 call from inside the jail to see how the system would track her cell phone.
Beyond the county's control, her call was picked up by a cellular tower across the Missouri River, which routed the call to a dispatcher in Doniphan County, Kan., despite the fact the call originated inside the Holt County Jail. The 19th-century jail creates its own problems with electrical and Internet wiring.
All these problems require money to address, which is often in short supply in rural counties. Because the rural fire departments and law enforcement agencies have limited budgets, they currently do not pay to use the 911 service, according to Holy County Presiding Commissioner Mark Sitherwood. He said the county once asked the agencies if they could pay and was met with a negative response, which forced an alternative approach.
In 2009, Holt County voters approved a one-quarter-cent sales tax to pay for 911 upgrades, which supplemented another one-quarter-cent tax voters approved in the 1990s. The two taxes generated roughly $157,000 in 2010, $181,000 in 2011 and $218,000 in 2012, according to Ms. Kunkel.
Mr. Sitherwood said he is confident the county is moving forward and provides better service than it did in the recent past.
"It's just like any other new system, it takes a while to get up and running," he said. "We're going to have to get our heads together and find a solution."
Clinton Thomas can be reached
Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPThomas.
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