Tulsa, please vote yes on this! It will save our lives.
Enhanced 911 service depends on Dec. 13 vote
By Greg Elwell
“I need the police here at my house right now,” the cell phone caller pleaded as she talked to Midwest City’s 911 dispatch center.
Dispatcher Becky Brus said she asked the woman where she was. Because the woman called on a cell phone, the 911 system could not locate the origin of the call.
The only reply Brus said she got were the screams and gasps of what sounded like a violent domestic assault.
In July 2004, Travis Mason and his mother Kym were headed to their Nichols Hills home from Tulsa. He was asleep and she was driving in heavy rain. That’s when their sports utility vehicle hit the guardrail and slid into a ditch, ejecting Kym Mason.
As his mother lay there with broken bones, Travis Mason called 911 on the cell phone, but couldn’t tell dispatchers where he was because he didn’t know. He had to flag down a passing vehicle to get enough information to get emergency help.
911 service has been a boon to Oklahoma, but something more is needed, said Zach Taylor, director of the Association of Central Oklahoma Governments.
Opponents agree enhanced 911 service for cell phones — which allows dispatchers to pinpoint the location of a caller — would be nice, but argue the cost is more than advertised and that the burden shouldn’t fall on the taxpayers.
The cost of safety
On Dec. 13, voters in Oklahoma, Logan, Canadian, Cleveland, McClain, Grady and 16 other counties will decide the fate of a 50-cent per cell phone monthly tax to pay for enhanced 911 service for cell phones.
Logan County voters will also decide whether to extend landline 911 service to some areas.
“Half of all 911 calls are placed from cell phones,” Taylor said. “Those calls take three times longer than calls from wired phones because the system is not set up for cell phones.”
A cell phone call to 911 yields dispatchers almost no information and calls sometimes end up going to call centers in far off cities where the cell phone has its home base, he said.
The current 911 service is paid for through a tax on wired phone service, but as more and more people move to cell phones, the old system is becoming less effective and less solvent, Taylor said.
Those problems can be solved with a 50-cent per month, per cell phone tax, he said.
Opponents of the measure say the service is welcome but the tax is not.
Former state Senate candidate Clark Duffe said he likes the idea of the enhanced 911 service, which would help direct cell phone callers to the right dispatch center and create a map of where the call was placed, but that the 50-cent price tag won’t be enough.
“It’s absolutely not going to cost 50 cents,” he said. “I looked it up in their (ACOG’s) own meeting minutes from last year.”
Taylor said it’s true that the initial cost they quoted was $1.50 a month per cell phone, but that was when the cell phone companies wanted to charge for their portion of the upgrades.
“Now the wireless companies will be responsible for their own expenses,” he said. “That’s how we got the 50 cents a month.”
Another concern for Duffe is that the ballot says users can be charged more than 50 cents if it is approved by the state Legislature, he said.
“They don’t even have to come to the people, just the legislature,” he said. “I haven’t seen that stated anywhere. It’s deceitful.”
Jerry Church the association’s communications programs coordinator said that is on the ballot, but that it won’t likely be utilized.
It took years for the Legislature to look at the enhanced 911 for cell phones in the first place, he said. Getting them to increase taxes without a vote would not be easy or needed, he said.
Former Libertarian Party State Chairman Richard Prawdzienski said even at a lower price, the service should not be dependent on more user fees.
“Cities already collected enough money in taxes to implement the 911 upgrade,” he said. “Last year the city of Edmond took in over $860,000 in cell phone taxes. If cities used their money for public safety instead of frills there would be no need for a vote on December 13th.”
Duffe agreed and said if cities would put public safety before arts programs, it could be paid for without another tax.
Though the politics of the tax are still up for debate, support for the service has been strong. Former Oklahoma City Mayor Ron Norick, former Nichols Hills Mayor Ann Taylor and former Norman Mayor Dick Reynolds joined together as co-chairmen of the 911 Saves Lives Committee and the Oklahoma City Metro Fire Chiefs Association endorsed the tax in mid-November.
“In emergencies, regardless if it’s a fire, police or medical situation, seconds do count,” said Jeff Lara, Metro Fire Chiefs Association president and Yukon Fire Chief. “Time is of the essence, and a successful election will help save time and save lives. I am proud that the organization heartily endorsed this plan.”
Another proponent is Oklahoma City Ward 1 councilman and former Oklahoma City Fire Chief Gary Marrs, who said this is a safety measure that will aid everyone.
“If you’re calling from a cell phone now and you can’t talk or you don’t know where you are, 911 can’t do much to find you,” he said. “But with the new technology, when it comes in place, even if you can’t speak, even if you don’t know where you’re at, operators can find you.”
The cell phones people use now can do this, but voters have to be willing to pay for their own safety, he said.
If the measure passes, the enhanced 911 service for cell phones could be in place within the next 18 months, Taylor said.
If it does not pass, the 911 Saves Lives Committee suggests callers be aware of their locations and landmarks so they can guide help in when it is needed.