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911 operators say state budget talks are taking a devastating turn as lawmakers look to raid a fund that was set up to improve the system.
State Senators want to strip more than $15 million from a 911 fund built up through phone excise taxes. Their plan is to spend that money on other emergency programs run by state patrol and the military department.
911 agencies say they'd been saving that tax revenue for years to pay for major upgrades, such as accepting text messages as emergency calls, only to see it snatched away by lawmakers.
If the proposals go through, 911 callers could see the biggest changes in smaller counties which count on state funding to operate.
Mike Worden, Chief of Communications for the Okanogan County Sheriff's Office says this could mean the difference between our staying with old communications equipment and upgrading to the new technology that allows for the county to receive 911 text messages. Those messages are extremely important to the hearing impaired community but also in important in the more rugged parts of the county.
Worden explained that a text message takes such a small amount of signal that you could "squeak on out when you are stuck or lost on a mountain side when you there is no way you could get a voice call out."
The funding impact for Okanogan County would be roughly $200,000 right now. Worden said that was about $140,000 for revisions needed for the 911 phone system and about $60,000 needed for a recorder system.
But, he said, the impact in Ferry County where they need a whole new system would be in the range of $175,000 to $200,000.
State lawmakers say the situation isn't so dire, and even with the budgetary diversions, local agencies should still be able to respond to 911 calls normally. And that is true Worden explained, using the old systems and not being able to accept text messages. He said that really becomes a problem when other counties do make the switch and offer 911 text services. He said when we have people coming into our county from other areas, where that is available and they need help, hopefully they would get a message that their text was undeliverable. But if they don't it could become a life or death matter. Worden said, we really need to have a continuity of service across the state when it comes to emergencies and contacting 911.
That is especially important in places like Okanogan County that depend on tourists, hunters and fishermen and the dollars they bring to our economy.
Worden said it is also frustrating that the fund is being raided when many agencies, including his, put off upgrades to be able to save up and only replace equipment systems once rather than twice. He said we were being prudent with tax dollars and now we are being slapped for it.
A final decision on 911 funding won't be known until a state budget is passed, and that could be weeks away.
The Senate budget strips the 911 funding, but the House version does not. Now is the time to contact your legislators and express your opinion on the 911 funding. The legislative hotline number is 1-800-562-6000.
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