State OKs cell charges for 911

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Residents may soon see changes on their phone bills – both on landlines and cell phones – after the Legislature Tuesday gave final approval to a bill that will establish a statewide, level fee on all devices capable of reaching 911 emergency call centers.

The legislation was designed in response to growing technological changes and the dwindling use of traditional landline phone service to ensure the continued viability of the 911 emergency calling service.

Today, Alabama’s 88 local districts each set their own rates, with many rural programs facing serious funding challenges because of declining population, growing costs and expansion of technology.

Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, said the legislation is the product of more than 18 months of work by professionals from every segment of the 911 community

The first 911 call in the U.S. was made in Haleyville in 1968. Now, Alabama’s 911 programs are supervised by local boards that employ professional responders to take calls and dispatch emergency personnel. Currently, fees on traditional landline phone service fund 911 programs.

As of March, each residential telephone account in Covington County was charged a $2.54 monthly 911 fee and each business account was charged $3.50. There is no fee charged on cell phone lines.

“Our 911 system is too critical to let it be threatened by technological changes,” said Sen. Del Marsh, the bill’s co-sponsor. “This forward-thinking legislation will secure the future of emergency communications in Alabama for years to come.”

The bill sets in motion a 15-month process that will conclude with the establishment of a flat rate that will apply to traditional landline phones, wireless phones, pre-paid wireless service, voice-over-internet service and any other technology that can access the network. A statewide panel will collect data on the 911 revenue collected by each district, establish the rate on Oct. 1, 2013, and distribute the resulting revenue to ensure all districts maintain their current level of funding.

“By broadening the base to include all services, residential and business customers in many jurisdictions will see decreased fees,” Brasfield explained.

Another review panel established by the bill will take a comprehensive look at the operation of 911 systems in Alabama – including a review by the Department of Examiners of Public Accounts – to determine if the 911 services can be delivered in a more efficient manner. The report will be submitted to the Legislature at the start of the 2014 regular session.

Covington County 911 director Kristy Stamnes said the measure means good things for the emergency dispatch service.

“With technology changing, we at 911 have to be up to date on our system capabilities, to be able to accept calls no matter how they might come in to us,” Stamnes said. “For example, it is easy to for someone at the scene send a video of a wreck or a text message. This bill will make sure that we have a level amount of revenue coming in so that we can try to update our equipment to process that information no matter how it gets here and as new things evolve.”

The bill now goes to Gov. Robert Bentley.