County seeking state help to upgrade 911 system

Money earmarked for Next Generation 911 instead offsetting state budget, county says
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Shawano County is sending an S.O.S. to the state, urging state officials to put up the money for long-promised for upgrades to the 911 system.

According to Shawano County Administrative Coordinator Brent Miller, the roughly $75 million a year collected by the state in taxes on cellphones, landlines and computer lines is instead being used to offset the state budget.

“They’re robbing us to do that,” Miller said.

“If they would actually take this seriously and do this — if you took $75 million, you could give $1 million to each county. It would certainly make a huge difference,” he said.

The Shawano County Board last week adopted an advisory resolution urging the governor and Wisconsin State Legislature to allocate $7 million annually for counties to upgrade local 911 centers to begin the transition to Next Generation 911.

“All we’re doing is saying, ‘take this money that you’ve got and use it for what it was originally intended for,’” Miller said.

The resolution was drafted by the Wisconsin Counties Association, and a number of other counties around the state have adopted or are considering it.

Because most 911 systems were originally built using analog rather than digital technologies, public safety answering points (PSAPs) across the country, including Shawano County’s dispatch center, need to be upgraded to a digital or Internet Protocol (IP)-based 911 system, commonly referred to as Next Generation 911 (NG911).

“The success and reliability of 911 will be greatly improved with the implementation of NG911, as it will enhance 911 services to create a faster, more resilient system that allows voice, photos, videos and text messages to flow seamlessly from the public to the 911 network,” Sheriff Adam Bieber said.

“NG911 will also improve PSAP ability to help manage call overload, natural disasters, and transferring of 911 calls and proper jurisdictional responses based on location tracking,” he said. “Dispatchers will be able to communicate via text messaging for those hard of hearing or those who are in a dangerous situation and aren’t able to speak freely.”

Bieber said NG911 would also allow the county to back up the department’s radio and phone system.

“A timely response is very important for EMS, fire and law enforcement, to provide life-saving services,” he said. “Our current system lacks a backup, so if our radio or phone system has a critical error it would delay first responders response time drastically.”

Bieber said there is no time frame at this point for the conversion to NG911.

“Once the process starts internally, it will take a couple months to set up the new phone system, test it in a semi-live environment, and then we will go live with the system,” he said. “We want to make sure everything is running smoothly in the test environment before we go live with the system. There will be additional training needed once this system is in place for the communication center staffing.”

The average cost for the necessary equipment upgrades will exceed $250,000 per county in addition to ongoing maintenance costs, according to the county’s resolution.

Though grants have been available, the state has not provided funding for 911 upgrades in over a decade, the resolution states.

State Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, said he agrees with Miller that the money collected from the police and fire protection fee on cellphones and landlines should be used for 911 upgrades.

That money instead starting going to the state’s general fund under Gov. Jim Doyle and continued to do so under Gov. Scott Walker.

Cowles said it was an issue that would have to be addressed in the next bienniel budget, which isn’t likely to be finalized until the summer or fall of next year.