New Portage County 911 system proposed to support cell phone technology

Jessica White

By this time next year, cell phone users may be able to send text messages to 911.

Portage County officials are planning to upgrade the county’s 911 dispatch system from analog to digital. The switch would allow police to improve their dispatch services, while adding the ability to receive text messages, photo, video and GPS location, said Jon Barber, director of Portage County’s Emergency Management Agency.

“The industry calls the current system an ‘end of life’ system, meaning it’s no longer being made, and neither are parts to repair it,” Barber said.

The county’s 911 Planning Committee and a technical advisory committee beneath it are discussing whether to lease or buy the next generation system, although Barber said he prefers the lease deal.

AT&T Inc. is offering a lease that would cost the county an estimated $19,000 per month, he said, while purchasing a system could cost between $900,000 and $1.3 million depending on the vendor. If the county buys the new system upfront, it would also have to pay for upgrades and maintenance, while AT&T would include upkeep in the lease deal.

The county has six emergency call centers; unless some are combined, the purchase cost would be multiplied by six, Barber said. The lease price already includes those six centers.

Barber said he can’t think of any advantage in purchasing the new system over leasing it, but the technical advisory committee wants to be certain before making a recommendation.

Portage County Commissioner Maureen Frederick said the biggest unknown is the source of funding.

Currently the county’s 911 fund contains about $600,000, which comes from a federal tax of 28 cents per bill from cell phone users, Barber said. The tax, which is scheduled to expire next year, was established to help local safety officials upgrade dispatch systems to better interact with cell phone providers’ technology.

Barber said Portage County met federal requirements before the tax expired, allowing it to spend the funds on other 911 dispatch-related expenses.

If the tax is renewed next year, it would continue to pay for the dispatch system, he said. If not, funding would likely need to come from the locals.

Kent City Manager Dave Ruller said the upgrade needs to happen, whether or not there is funding from the cell phone tax.

“Getting the technology right comes first, and figuring out the financial plan is sort of second,” Ruller said. “Obviously the two go together, but we can’t let (the money) be the driver for a long-term decision.”

Dean Tondiglia, associate director of public safety at Kent State, said the decision shouldn’t be hasty.

“We still need to study efficiencies, what savings there would be — but most of all, we want to see what service levels we would want to have,” Tondiglia said. “We definitely want to keep our service levels, or improve where we’re at right now.”

Ruller said the computerized system is ultimately about keeping the public as safe as possible.

“At the end of the day, it adds up to how this system will help us save more lives,” he said.

Contact Jessica White at [email protected].