City Design

There was a time not so long ago when 9-1-1 was not the first number children learned by heart. In the United States, the first 9-1-1 call passed through a Haleyville, Ala. switchboard in 1968. But it wasn’t for another three decades, with passage of the Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act of 1999, that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made 9-1-1 the universal emergency number.

Getting help through 9-1-1 seems fairly simple. You dial three digits. Someone is paid to answer the phone, figure out where you are, and send help. But it’s trickier than that, and far more expensive, particularly as new technologies render older systems obsolete, requiring ever more capital investments.

In 2004, when Pittsburgh and Allegheny County decided to centralize and co-locate their emergency call centers, there were some 46 or 47 individual centers handling calls says County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. “It wasn’t a good way to operate; it wasn’t efficient.”

By combining centers, the 9-1-1 merger creates a larger pool of call-takers so help can be dispatched faster. Currently, the Allegheny County 9-1-1 Center takes 1.3 million calls a year and serves 130 municipalities. Director of Allegheny County Emergency Services Chief Alvin Henderson says, “Our newly configured county-wide call-taking configuration will automatically present that 9-1-1 call to the truly next available 9-1-1 call taker, versus calls only presenting in zones.”

In addition to saving time, consolidation cuts taxpayer costs. Every 9-1-1 call center has its own protocols, its own staffing needs, and makes its own budget demands.  According to Fitzgerald, a large call center could cost a municipality as much as $500,000 a year. But even with the money saved from the city-county merger, Fitzgerald says the region’s 9-1-1 call center operates at a deficit due to an outdated funding formula.

The state can collect a surcharge on all wireless phones, while the county only collects a surcharge on landlines.

“Landlines are going the way of the horse and buggy,” says Fitzgerald. “It would be like taxing oats to pay for roadways. Everything is on cell phones, and there isn’t a funding mechanism to capture that money to support local 9-1-1 operations.”

While the state is moving forward on retooling the formula, the city and county rely on property taxes to cover their costs.

The commitment to city-county cooperation and the merger of personnel, training, and technology will make it easier to move to Next Generation 9-1-1, in which centers could automatically receive information from medical alert systems, collision notification systems, and other sensors capable of feeding data. Sometimes, more information really is better.

Margaret J. Krauss is a writer, radio producer, and researcher. If not biking Pittsburgh's streets or swimming its rivers, she is likely geeking out about a really good story.