Sometimes, emergency dispatchers must wish for the good old days.
When Alvin Henderson first walked into a dispatch center several decades ago, there were no cell phones. If the center got three calls reporting a fire or accident, dispatchers knew it must be something big.
Nowadays, in the age of the iPhone, the same incident will have Mr. Henderson's staff at Allegheny County's 911 center fielding 20 calls at once.
The good old days were never really that good: Allegheny County has successfully transformed a patchwork quilt of more than 40 separate dispatch centers into one central 911 system, raising standards and increasing efficiency. Dispatchers now spend more time on the phone with callers than they did in the 1980s, when sending help meant asking for an address and hanging up.
But it has come at a cost, said Mr. Henderson, Allegheny County's Emergency Services chief, because of changes in the way the centers are funded. The center is running at a $5.2 million deficit, and next year, the gap will rise to $6.2 million, prompting the county to join others to push for changes because taxpayers are making up the shortfall.
"It's expensive to have a solid system," Mr. Henderson said. "We need these resources to continue providing the high level of services."
Allegheny County pays for its 911 center through surcharges on phone service, including a $1 surcharge on landline phones and a $1 charge on cell phones. That's the system for every county in Pennsylvania, although some charge more.
But while money from landlines goes straight into county coffers, cell phone revenue is sent to Harrisburg, where it is doled out to counties based on applications. What's more, cell phone surcharges cannot be spent to pay personnel, which is one of Mr. Henderson's biggest expenses.
And as more residents drop landlines in favor of mobile phones as their primary means of communication, Allegheny County has gotten less money to cover the payroll.
Next year, county taxpayers may have to pay more than $6 million to prop up the 911 center, which is running a record-high deficit.
This is not a new problem -- the center has brought in less than it spends for at least four years.
Last month, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald testified before the state House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, asking lawmakers to change the funding formula that's sending his budget into the red.
"Our 911 system is poised for collapse," he said in his statement. "Should we continue down this road, we will have very few options available to us."
Mr. Fitzgerald wants the state to guarantee stable funding instead of making counties compete against each other for grants from cell phone revenue.
He also would like to see the law rewritten to anticipate new forms of communication.
"We can't foresee the future, but written broadly, there is an opportunity to adjust accordingly to encapsulate any future technologies," he said in the hearing.
Mr. Fitzgerald has caught the attention of local legislators. State Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, who is the minority chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness, said he'd like to increase the surcharges to keep up with the rate of inflation.
But he's not a fan of giving 911 centers a fixed appropriation from the state, saying the application process allows Harrisburg to reward efficiency.
"The state looks at call center by call center and looks at the efficiency of how they operate," Mr. Solobay said.
"It may be the state's way of doing some checks and balances."
There are plenty of current technologies Mr. Henderson would like to include. He's keeping his eye on two out-of-state counties that are testing text message reporting: With a cell phone in everyone's pocket, it's a no-brainer, he thinks.
But that, of course, would require more staff -- and more money.
"We have to have funding to support it," he said.
Andrew McGill: email@example.com or 412-263-1497. First Published October 14, 2013 8:00 PM