If someone breaks into your house, you call 911. If your house is on fire, you call 911. If your husband is having a heart attack, you call 911. In short, we all call 911 for a variety of reasons, but we don't likely think about what all goes into ensuring that police, paramedics or firefighters get to our homes quickly.
The answer is communications dispatchers. Whenever a person calls 911 using a landline, a $1 surcharge goes to fund the communication center's operation. That money pays for staff salary, radio equipment, computers and other expenses. The problem is that fewer people have land lines these days, and the surcharge for cell phone use is only 65 cents. Only a portion of those 65 cents goes to the communication center.
"The formula is so complicated that I am not sure anyone understands it," said Marshalltown Police Chief Mike Tupper.
Tupper said the shift from land lines to cell phones has significantly decreased the revenue for communication centers across the state in the past decade. The revenue stream is decreasing every year, he said. In order to continue to fund the communication center and update some aging equipment, reserves will have to be tapped.
Having up-to-date equipment ensures a high quality of service, he added.
When asked at what point it would become necessary to restructure the way the state allocates money through cell phone calls, he said "About three years ago."
Tupper said he understands that the state has infrastructure costs that the E911 surcharge helps fund, but if the center continues to hemorrhage money, he worries there will be little funding left to operate it.
"It is an important cog," he said. "We are talking about critical public safety here."
Teresa Lang, Public Safety communications supervisor, said it is imperative that the wireless surcharge match the landline surcharge.
Lang said the center needs to replace its computer aided dispatch software as well as four county fire repeaters. Those costs could total as much as $170,000.
"Communications equipment is very expensive," she said.
Rep. Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown, said he yet to hear about any effort to overhaul the system in the state legislature this year.
"It's an important issue for cities and counties," he said. "I would think it would be brought up before the session is over."