Friday, September 20, 2013

County considers 25-cent phone fee

Money would allow upgrade of dispatch system

Express Staff Writer

     Blaine County is considering adding 25 cents to the current $1 E-911 fee on each phone line toward upgrading its emergency dispatch system to include automatic location of text messages and recording of photos sent from cell phones.

     The fee would be collected by the state Emergency Communications Commission and distributed to counties in its discretion as part of its Dedicated Enhanced Emergency Communications Grant Fee Fund. During a meeting with the Blaine County commissioners Tuesday, commission Program Coordinator Eddie Goldsmith said Blaine County would be the No. 1 priority in the state to receive grant money to fund an upgrade to Next Generation 911 capability.

     The county installed an Enhanced 911 system in 2006 following voter approval of the $1 fee in 2002. The system provided automatic location information to dispatchers of calls made from landline and cell phones. Since then, all the other counties in the state have adopted that technology, though none has a Next Generation 911 system.

     Once on the cutting edge, Blaine County’s dispatch technology has fallen behind that of many other counties. Goldsmith said it would require about $250,000 in upgrades to make it compatible with Next Generation software.

     Blaine is one of only five counties in the state that have not participated in the grant program, which has distributed $9.4 million since 2010. Commissioner Larry Schoen said that when the program was inaugurated in 2009, there did not appear to be any benefits to Blaine County’s participation.

     However, that has changed now that Next Generation 911 is available.

     Goldsmith said any county joining the program and charging the additional 25-cent fee must wait a year before receiving any money from the fund. He said grant awards are made each November, so Blaine County would have to make a decision to join by this November to obtain funding in November 2014.

     Goldsmith said it would be up to each county to decide how it wants to implement the new system—individually or on a regional or statewide basis. He said that counties in other states that have adopted the system have found that they can’t do it alone, and he recommended that it be done in Idaho on a regional level. He said that would not have to be a geographic region, but could be groups of similar-size counties.

     Schoen said the commissioners will have to decide whether the grant program and imposition of the 25-cent fee are the best way to raise money to install a Next Generation system. He said that decision should be made within 45 days.

     “There are a whole lot of questions yet to be answered about the administrative challenges before the technology can be adopted,” Schoen said in an interview. “We’ve heard the presentation. The next step will be to hear from our communications specialists.”

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