Where we stand with 9-1-1 reform

By Josh Curtis, AAC Governmental Affairs Director & Blake Gary, AAC Law Clerk

Two years ago, County Lines magazine published an article on the current environment of Arkansas’s 9-1-1 system and the need to perform a study that outlines the inefficiencies and provide solutions to move toward Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG911). The article highlighted many deficiencies the current system faces. For example, in 2015, the 65-cent user fee levied on cell phones each month generated $18,957,120.76, and the revenue generated from wireline phones totaled $7,390,852.52. While this sounds like a lot of money, the counties and cities had to supplement an additional $20,821,055.76 to provide minimal 9-1-1 services.

During the 2017 legislative session, two bills were passed regarding Arkansas’ 9-1-1 systems. First, a moratorium on public safety answering points (PSAPs) was passed to restrict the creation of any new PSAPs until July 1, 2020. Second, the legislature enacted Act 785, which appropriated $200,000 to the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management (ADEM). Special language was included in the Act to give ADEM the authority to accept funds from non-state entities for expenses of evaluating and studying 9-1-1 and emergency communication. The Association of Arkansas Counties (AAC) and Arkansas Municipal League(ARML) were prepared to allocate $50,000 for the purpose of conducting a study on Arkansas’ 9-1-1 system. However, ADEM Director A.J. Gary was able to touch base with the Office of Emergency Communications (OEC), a sub-department of the Department of Homeland Security, to come to Arkansas and conduct a professional study for free.

On Nov. 13-14, 2017, a group of 911 stakeholders consisting of a county judge, a city manager, law enforcement, 911 telecommunicators, Office of Emergency Management directors, ADEM, and AAC met at ADEM for a two-day workshop with the OEC consultants. The idea of the workshop was to discuss current 9-1-1 problems in Arkansas and develop an Arkansas State 9-1-1 plan containing solutions to make the system more efficient. During this workshop, the stakeholders developed a series of goals to accomplish throughout the following months to find efficiencies and, most importantly, find a way for Arkansas to get to the next generation technology (NG911). From November to April of 2017, the stakeholders held bimonthly conference calls to keep everyone updated on the progress made and continued to receive input for the Arkansas State 9-1-1 plan. Finally, on April 16, 2017, the stakeholders met again at ADEM to finalize the plan.

The plan includes four main pillars for 9-1-1 transformation. First, the state of Arkansas has to bring 9-1-1 infrastructure into the 21st century. This will be done by transitioning from the copper wire legacy system to an IP based NG911 system. 9-1-1 in Arkansas has to be able to adapt to new technology that runs off an IP based system. Most of the equipment used for 9-1-1 is already NG911 compatible but doesn’t have the infrastructure to connect to. Second, every state that has implemented NG911 has had some entity leading the implementation. This could be a state agency or a statewide 9-1-1 board with authority to assist PSAPs in 9-1-1 reform. The board is paramount for many reasons, including applying for federal grants. Recently, Arkansas lost out on federal dollars because of the lack of 9-1-1 leadership and coordination that a board would provide. Third, consolidation is an important piece of 9-1-1 transformation. Arkansas has too many PSAPs compared to other states, and funding over a hundred PSAPs is inefficient and not sustainable. Consolidation has to happen for safety reasons as well. Transferring 911 calls from one PSAP to another takes away precious time that could be used getting the caller the help they need. The final pillar is funding. 9-1-1 has lacked funding since the evolution of mobile devices. Counties and cities are supplementing $25 million a year for 9-1-1. This is money that comes from the general fund that is needed for everyday operations mandated by the state. The user fee in Arkansas is one of the lowest in the country and should be increased to provide consistent services across the state.

Spreading the Word

With the plan finalized, the time came to discuss and share information with state and local leaders. The Arkansas State 9-1-1 Plan was first introduced to the legislature in the Joint Committee on Advanced Communications and Information Technology. By the end of the committee meeting the legislators had many questions but were generally accepting that 9-1-1 needs an upgrade and that counties need more money to operate. Shortly after, on June 7, 2018, the County Judges of Arkansas Association (CJAA) passed a resolution in support of 9-1-1 reform. The judges voted unanimously to give their full support for 9-1-1 legislation, which would accomplish this. During the annual AAC conference in Rogers last summer, the House and Senate City, County, and Local Affairs Committees met together for a joint meeting. Once again the plan was introduced, and we articulated the issues local jurisdictions are having with 9-1-1 funding and outlined solutions for making 9-1-1 more efficient and more reliable.

A timeline of events has occurred since. On Sept. 5, 2018, a handful of county judges met with Gov. Asa Hutchinson and First Lady Susan Hutchinson at the Governor’s mansion. The Judges conveyed the same problems and concerns with 9-1-1 to the Governor as they did with legislators. Throughout this process, word began to spread that the AAC was working on legislation for 9-1-1 reform and informing our local leaders on the problem. Many local 9-1-1 boards and 9-1-1 telecommunicators wanted us to visit their PSAP and discuss the future of 9-1-1. In one case, Lonoke County Judge Doug Erwin invited us to meet with the Lonoke County 9-1-1 Board on Sept. 6, 2018. The board discussed the viability of consolidating the six PSAPs serving Lonoke County. After presenting the CJAA’s resolution, Cabot Mayor Bill Sybert, unsolicited, made a motion to support the resolution and the board passed it unanimously. On Sept. 24, 2018, after visiting with the sheriffs about 9-1-1 problems and the route the judges wanted to take, the Arkansas Sheriffs Association (ASA) also voted unanimously to adopt a resolution in support of 9-1-1 reformation. A few days later, Greene County Judge Rusty McMillon, ADEM Director A.J. Gary, and I had the opportunity to attend the Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police conference to discuss the plan and the positive impact it would have on all law enforcement. After meeting with many professional stakeholders and hearing many failures of the current 9-1-1 system, one thing we can all agree on is 9-1-1 is in need of a total transformation.

The Joint City, County, and Local Committee invited ADEM, Emergency Telephone Services Board (ETSB), Arkansas Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and the AAC to present the 9-1-1 transformation plan. On Oct. 11, 2018, ADEM Director A.J. Gary, Greene County Judge Rusty McMillon, ETSB Administrator Renee Hoover, State GIS Officer Shelby Johnson, Saline County Sheriff Rodney Wright, and myself testified on the need for 9-1-1 reform. The committee generally agreed 9-1-1 needs to be converted to Next Generation 9-1-1. The legislators also liked the idea of a state board coordinating the implementation. Most of the debate came from the consolidation and funding portions of the plan. Every member of the committee concurred that over 100 PSAPs are too many. But what is the correct amount? ADEM Director Gary said we could reduce the number of PSAPs to one per county with a few exceptions. We even told the committee that there are a few Arkansas counties working on consolidation plans.

Since the first committee meeting, many legislators have expressed interest in 9-1-1 transformation. They are asking more questions and wanting to learn more about the details involved in the reform. We have been to a total of five legislative committee meetings to present the plan and to answer questions. Sometimes what gets lost in all the technical aspects of 9-1-1 is what we are really trying to accomplish. The CJAA and ASA, as well as many other stakeholders groups, are striving for effective emergency communications all Arkansans can be confident in. Arkansas must accelerate its move toward NG911, deliver these essential services equitably across the state, and assure effective coordination with all emergency personnel.

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