The Kansas Legislature needs to try again to reach a compromise that will allow wireless telephone customers to both pay for and tap into an enhanced 911 system.
The shrinkage Douglas County and undoubtedly other counties are seeing in the funds they receive to help maintain their 911 emergency phone systems may refocus attention on a quirk in the funding mechanism for this important service.
Douglas County expects to collect $420,000 this year to buy equipment and defray other costs of its 911 system. That's down from $450,000 last year. The money comes from a 75-cent fee on monthly telephone bills. So why the decline? One reason is that the fee only is collected on telephones hooked to land lines, not on wireless phones. The decline in revenue is a logical result of the growing popularity of wireless phones, which now replace, rather than supplement, land-line telephones for many customers.
One justification for not charging the fee for wireless customers is that those callers don't receive the same "enhanced 911" service available to land-line customers. Although wireless customers can and do, in great numbers call 911 to report emergencies, they currently don't have access to enhanced 911, which allows a law enforcement dispatcher to pinpoint the location of a 911 caller if that person is unable to supply that information.
Legislation to require counties to provide the enhanced service to wireless customers has been debated in the Kansas Legislature, but so far has failed. It's not that the technology doesn't exist to provide enhanced 911 to wireless customers but the funding to purchase equipment and maintain that service concerns some counties.
Requiring counties to simply fund their own enhanced systems has some drawbacks. The fees collected on phone bills would fund the system in larger population counties, but not in less-populated counties. One solution is to form a statewide pool that would redistribute funds, but some larger counties don't like the idea of funds raised from their residents going elsewhere. Counties also worry about the reliability of supplemental funding, without which it would be difficult for some to maintain enhanced 911 service.
It's time to rise above regional concerns and forge a compromise to enact enhanced 911 across the state with the help of funding from wireless customers. Kansans who live in urban areas also would benefit from enhanced 911 service in rural counties through which they drive. Kansans all across the state are becoming increasingly reliant on wireless communication, and it's only fair that wireless telephone customers contribute financially to a communication system that could someday save their lives.