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911 becoming countywide, but confusion remains

Saturday, March 20, 1999

By Mike Bucsko, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It took more than 20 years of political wrangling and exhaustive planning for Allegheny County to implement 911 emergency telephone service.

Dan Maines, right, and Ron Akerley converse at the Eastern Regional 911 Center in Monroeville. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette) 

Now, when a resident of Mt. Lebanon, Ross or Wilkins is having chest pains or reporting a fire or police emergency, he or she can dial 911. The caller's address, phone number and other vital information are instantly displayed on a screen at a regional dispatch center, and appropriate emergency personnel are sent out.

But in Upper St. Clair and some other communities, police chiefs are advising residents to continue calling a seven-digit local emergency number rather than 911.

In those municipalities, 911 calls go to a regional center but then must be transferred back to the municipality because officials don't want their police and emergency personnel dispatched by someone else.

The result is that 911, long billed as a way to simplify, unify and modernize emergency response among the more than 400 emergency agencies countywide, remains a welter of confusion and conflict.

"I personally believe it is criminal if any municipal official tells a resident they should dial a seven-digit number in an emergency," said W. Brad Magill, coordinator of the county's 911 system.

The service will officially be complete with the opening Monday of the sixth and final regional dispatch center in McKeesport, making Allegheny County the nation's last urban center to adopt regional 911.

A group of county and local officials, including Commissioners Bob Cranmer and Mike Dawida, yesterday unveiled the last piece in the 911 system during a news conference at the new Mon Valley Emergency Dispatch Center at UPMC McKeesport.

But the refusal of Upper St. Clair and 56 other communities to join regional dispatch centers leaves a multitude of emergency response scenarios, depending on where calls are placed, what number is dialed, and the circumstances of the emergency.

In communities that refused to join regional dispatch centers, precious seconds can be added to response times as calls are transferred or local dispatchers look up information, such as the address of a caller who became incapacitated after dialing.

Municipal officials in the nonparticipating towns say their decision to remain apart from the countywide 911 system is in the best interest of their residents. They say a local police department and dispatchers provide a personal touch for residents that is only a phone call away.

"The bottom line here is to protect the citizens," said Upper St. Clair Police Chief Ronald Pardini. "I'm not going to shut down my dispatch here because I want the public of Upper St. Clair to have access to their police department 24 hours a day."

The way 911 will work depends on the location of the caller. Some examples:

Mrs. Jones is having chest pain and trouble breathing, so she dials 911 from the telephone in her Mt. Lebanon home.

Immediately, Mrs. Jones' address, telephone number and other vital information are displayed on a computer screen in the South Hills Regional Dispatch Center. Dispatchers determine the problem and send an ambulance and police to the Jones home.

Mrs. Smith in neighboring Upper St. Clair falls down in her kitchen and injures her leg. Taking the advice of the police department, Mrs. Smith dials the department's seven-digit telephone number.

But before an Upper St. Clair dispatcher can obtain Mrs. Smith's address, she passes out. Upper St. Clair police obtain Mrs. Smith's telephone number from the caller ID on their telephones and start to look up the Smith address with the help of a directory that lists phone numbers and addresses.

Another Upper St. Clair resident, Mr. Davis, has a fire in his garage and dials 911 rather than the municipality's seven-digit number. Mr. Davis' address and phone number are displayed on a computer screen when his call is connected to the South Hills dispatch center in Mt. Lebanon. Dispatchers then transfer his call to Upper St. Clair.

The transfer is made at the touch of a button, but Mr. Davis will be asked twice to state the nature of the emergency - once by the regional center and again by the Upper St. Clair dispatcher, a redundancy that may not sit well with someone whose garage is in flames.

The opening of the Mon Valley center means, theoretically, that 911 should be available from the 950,000 telephone lines in the county. But a small number of customers may not yet have the enhanced 911 service that causes their names, addresses, phone numbers and other information to appear automatically on the dispatcher's computer screen.

About 3 percent of the telephone lines in the county will not have the enhanced 911 capability because of complications with maintaining an accurate database. About 8,000 changes are made each day to maintain the database at about 97 percent accuracy overall and 99 percent accuracy for residential lines, Magill said.

One problem is with sites that have a central switchboard, such as schools. The enhanced 911 listing will contain information only for the central location, but not the exact location for extensions, Magill said.

"It will never be perfect," he said. "I want everyone to understand that. I can't make a database for 950,000 records perfect."

The response to 911 calls will depend on where you live and, sometimes, on the purpose of the call.

For residents of the city of Pittsburgh, Mount Oliver and 66 other communities, dispatchers in 911 centers will contact the appropriate ambulance, fire or police agency and dispatch them if necessary.

When 911 calls are made by residents in Upper St. Clair and 56 other municipalities, the calls are transferred within seconds from a regional 911 center to dispatchers in the local police department or one nearby.

Residents in the 57 communities that are not participating in the 911 system, called "ring-downs," can also dial their local police and fire departments directly by using the seven-digit number that has been used for years.

Several communities that have decided to opt out of the new 911 system were part of an unsuccessful legal challenge two years ago. Some have continued to fight the system.

Whitehall last month filed a lawsuit against the county seeking a refund of a monthly 74-cent surcharge on the borough's telephones from August 1995 to August 1998. The surcharge, part of the state legislation that created 911 systems, was levied by the county to pay for the new emergency communications network.

West Mifflin council this week voted to file a lawsuit or to join Whitehall's suit to recoup money the borough contends it is owed from the surcharge.

There are other elements of confusion in the new system.

While police can be dispatched locally in the nonparticipating communities, that is not the case with all of the fire and ambulance services that serve those towns. Many fire and ambulance companies in the nonparticipating towns are dispatched by the regional centers. So if residents in those towns have a fire or need an ambulance, they should dial 911 for fastest service.

In five towns along Allegheny County's border - Bell Acres, Leet, Leetsdale, McDonald and Trafford - 911 calls go first to Beaver, Washington or Westmoreland counties before dispatchers transfer the calls back to Allegheny County.

Despite the system's lack of uniform participation, Magill and other proponents say the 911 network is working well. They anticipate more municipalities will sign on as the system's worth is proven over time.

"Right now, we feel the only way to prove anything is that we really have to be operational and show the level of service and the cost effectiveness of the service. Then it will really end up selling itself," said Bob Keefer, an Elizabeth Township commissioner and board chairman of the Mon Valley center.

The system, with its six regional centers, was whittled down considerably from a system with 59 answering points proposed four years ago. The 59 proposed centers were reduced to 41 with mergers of dispatching services. But the new county administration that took office in 1996 decided the plan was unwieldy.

"We could not sit back as public officials and let a system proceed that was destined to fail and cost people their lives," county Manager Glenn Cannon told the group at UPMC McKeesport yesterday.

The slimmed-down 911 plan was endorsed by the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, which oversees emergency operations statewide. The state would not approve a plan that included more than three dozen answering points and insisted the 41-center plan be drastically scaled back, said PEMA spokesman Marko Bourne.

"There was no practical way to do it," Bourne said. "It needed to be a consolidated effort. It kind of defeats the purpose [of a 911 system] to have that many answering points."

But regionalizing the system also caused numerous communities to opt out rather than let someone else dispatch their personnel.

Legislation passed in 1990 that provided guidelines for 911 systems established a right for counties to levy a surcharge on telephone lines to pay for the service. Allegheny County set a monthly rate of 74 cents per telephone line.

Money raised from the surcharge remains a point of contention.

Some municipal officials, including Pardini and Whitehall Police Chief J. William Schmitt, contend the proceeds should have gone to municipalities so they could set up their own 911 systems. Instead, the county got all the money.

"It was a big political game," Pardini said. "They won, we lost."

Consolidation helps smaller municipalities connect with larger dispatch services and benefit from a higher quality system with better equipment, Magill said. It would help attain equity in 911 services between municipalities that could afford their own dispatch service and those that cannot, he said.

But Pardini said the decision to establish regional centers should have been left up to the municipalities and not to the county.

"You shouldn't have it shoved down your throat," he said. "If a community can afford and wants to do [its own dispatching], where does a director in the county get off forcing it down your throat?

"You can eat at McDonald's or you can eat at Ruth's Chris [Steak House] ... it's what you can afford and what you want. The residents of Upper St. Clair want their own dispatch system."

The county provides $3 per person in each regional dispatch area to each center's operating budget. The money comes from the telephone surcharge.

Municipalities that have signed on as members of the regional 911 centers are required to pay for its operations. The funding formulas, determined by each center's board of directors, are based on 911 call volumes, population and total assessed property values.

Several municipalities have saved money by joining regional 911 centers and eliminating their own dispatchers, while others have seen their costs increase.

One funding problem cited by Magill and other 911 supporters is that there is no surcharge on cellular telephones, which account for about 20 percent of 911 calls. Cellular 911 calls are routed to the dispatch center closest to the antenna that picks up the cellular signal.

Bob Harvey, director of the Eastern Regional Dispatch Center in Monroeville, said payments by cellular telephone companies would drastically reduce the costs to municipalities.

But even municipalities that can join a 911 center for free because they are state-designated as "distressed" have balked.

For example, Clairton could join the new Mon Valley center for free, but has decided not to participate. Instead, it pays Pleasant Hills $16,000 a year for dispatch services.

It would cost the city more than twice that amount, $34,000, to join the Mon Valley 911 center, but that expense would be paid by the state for at least two years because of the town's distressed status, City Manager Domenic Curinga said.

However, if it was to join the 911 system, Clairton would have to buy new radios that are compatible with the Mon Valley center's radio system and the city cannot afford it, Curinga said.

"Right now, we can barely afford the $16,000," he said.

The county recently decided to upgrade its entire radio communications system at about $25 million, to be funded by a bond issue.

The county also will spend another $3 million for a computerized mapping system that will pinpoint the site of emergencies and automatically list the types and numbers of emergency vehicles required to handle the incident.

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