911 will stay but response an issue
Rockdale’s 911 service isn’t going away but major changes are in the works and city officials are facing the task of balancing potential increased costs against possible increased response times in emergencies.
Jim Reed, executive director of the Central Texas Council of Governments, presented an update on the complex 911 situation Monday to county commissioners.
He will also appear at the Rockdale City Council meeting at 5:30 p.m. Monday, July 12.
Main points from Monday’s commissioners meeting:
• 911 service is not going away in Rockdale or Milam County. “All calls are going to be answered, even if we have to move it (answering point) to Bell County, and transfer them back here,” Reed said. “Of course that wouldn’t be the best for public safety.”
• CTCOG is asking entities in its seven-county area to make decisions on 911 funding by the end of July even though the anticipated funding crunch won’t kick in for another year or two.
Reed said that’s because CTCOG is facing an Aug. 30 deadline to purchase equipment related to the upcoming change from an analog to a digital system.
“We c ou ld end up sp end i ng $250,000 for equipment that will never be used,” he said.
• While C TCOG isn’t recommending an option, consolidating Rockdale and Cameron 911 access points appears to the most cost-effi- cient solution.
Reed’s figures showed continuing to maintain 911 answering points in both towns—Rockdale Police Department and Milam County Sheriff’s Office—would cost the county and the two cities $36,000 per year while consolidating the two sites would cost $22,000.
Currently the total annual cost of Rockdale’s site is put at $64,297 with Cameron’s at $59,946.
CTCOG pays for equipment, data lines and a database while counties and cities pay for staffing and building costs.
The anticipated funding crunch has its roots in a Texas Legislature bookkeeping move to reserve 12 cents of the 50-cent 911-funding fee on telephone bills in a budgetbalancing move.
Reed said by law the $148 million being reserved “sits in a state treasury lock box” and cannot be used for any purpose other than 911.
“But because it is not appropriated it’s counted as a credit against any deficit the state may be anticipating,” he said.
County Judge Frank Summers, a frequent critic of unfunded state mandates, called the move “a slush fund.”
Reed, when pressed by Summers, said the funding crunch could probably be avoided if the state would raise the amount of the 50-cent phone line fee going to CTCOG from 38 to 44 cents.
He pointed out that large cities— Dallas, Austin, Waco and others—have their own 911 districts and do receive the entire 50 cents.
“But you wouldn’t want that to happen here,” he said. “If Bell County became a 911 district on its own, it currently absorbs so much of the cost (in the CTCOG 911 system) the rural counties would be in dire straits.”
Emergency officials, including Rockdale Police Chief Thomas Harris, have expressed concern over the idea of the current Rockdale and Cameron access points into a single Cameron point, at a new location and new staff.
“They’re going to have to take all the information down, contact the emergency crews in South Milam and then give them all that information again,” he said. “That could add as much as five minutes to a 911 call and that could be critical.”
Reed pointed out that currently each Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) in Rockdale and Cameron has two lines, a primary line and a backup.
He said it would be possible to eliminate the back-up lines, leaving the two primary lines, each backing up the other.
“They’d still have to be at the same place, though,” he said.
Rockdale Police Lt. J. D. Newlin pointed out that in big emergencies, both primary and backup lines are filled to capacity.
Reed said Lampasas County recently decided to consolidate its locations. “But I don’t want to represent to you that county is in any way like Milam County. Their two access points are both in the city of Lampasas and just a few blocks away from each other”
The outlook isn’t all gloomy. Reed contrasted the upcoming digital system with current technology and pointed out Milam County is a special case.
“You’ve got three area codes here, 512, 254 and 979,” he said.
“Also, currently every call to the Rockdale 911 system goes to Houston on a trunk phone line, then comes back,” he said.
Reed said the digital system will not only be less expensive but will offer faster communications with more high-tech options.
“During the Fort Hood shooting there were people attempting to send photos and videos to 911 over their cell phones,” he said. “But the system was not able to handle that. This new digital system will.”