Lawmakers hear resistance to E911 legislation

Lawmakers hear resistance to E911 legislation by David Lias A House bill that may affect emergency telecommunications in the state likely will pass, but will be watered down and not cause a drastic effect.

District 17 Rep. H. Junior Engbrecht of Marion made that prediction at a legislative cracker-barrel meeting held Saturday morning at the Vermillion Public Library.

His guess was correct. Engbrecht called the Clay County Commission during its Tuesday morning meeting at the courthouse in Vermillion to inform them that the legislation had been approved.

Karen Olson, head of Vermillion's Telecommunication Department, spoke in opposition to HB 1292, an act that calls for legislative findings and recommendations for improvements to the 911 emergency notification system.

The bill was unanimously approved by the House State Affairs Committee on Feb. 16.

"I'm going to say the 911 bill is in trouble in the House," Engbrecht said.

That news is disappointing to Vermillion Mayor William Radigan, however. He believes the legislation has merit.

Radigan noted that the bill is designed to establish a task force to study the issue.

"It doesn't establish anything for certain," he said, "and the idea is we have all of these things that are concerning everybody, and we have to sit down someplace and make a plan. Maybe the plan will be that four or five counties will go together, or maybe it will be that the whole state gets involved, but I don't think we should kill this bill until the task force has time to decide what we need."

"The statute that controls the surcharge (for 911 services) is a local issue, however, the statute states that the 911 surcharge money is earmarked for 911 emergency communication and as such, whoever takes over 911, such as the state, is going to take over that money," Olson said. "That takes a big chunk of money out of the local governments' pockets and applies it to someplace where it's really going to end up being a duplication of effort."

"If you go back in history, we had the same go-around with state police radio," Engbrecht said. "We had state police radio in Parker, and we had a difficult time keeping it, and eventually the state did end up taking it all out, but police radio is just a little bit different than 911.

"I guess what bothers me the most about it, and I guess that's what I'll hang my hat on," he added, "is that you people here in Vermillion and in Canton have just put those (911) systems in. They're not old yet."

Olson said most 911 systems are less than 10 years old.

"I guess the thing that's being talked about the most is the 42 answering points across the state. There are no more

answering points in the state now than when 911 first started," she said. "It's just that to be considered a 911 answering point, the discussion on it was the state could run it cheaper, because they came up with some formula on how much it costs to make a 911 call, and how much it costs to process that call when some agencies are only answering maybe two 911 calls a day. But that's not the only call they're answering, though."

Engbrecht said the Spencer tornado of last summer is a major impetus of this bill.

"I understand the governor was there (at Spencer following the tornado) and all at once he found out there was no 911 service," he said.

"But that's a local issue. The local people can decide whether they want 911 or not, and state radio and 911 are two separate issues and they're putting the two together," Olson said. "Giving the state control over setting up and deciding how many 911 centers should be in the state and where they ought to be, I don't think, is the appropriate way to go about that." Olson said there are some portions of the legislation she could find acceptable.

"The bill does address some technical, operational and procedural standards, and that's good. There are a lot of small agencies out there that don't have any standards, and are operating jails as well as 911 lines by using the same people to do those duties, and they should be separate," she said.

This bill calls for creating a system that would provide voice, data, and radio communications links to all responding agencies that deliver emergency services within South Dakota, and the network would allow a public safety answering point to communicate with any emergency responder within the geographic boundaries of South Dakota.

"Don't you think, Karen, that the only way the smaller areas and remote areas (in the state) are ever going to get good 911 service is if the state intervenes and helps them?" District 17 Sen. Joe Reedy of Vermillion, asked. "And I think that's probably what's going to come in the end. We're probably going to have a center someplace that's going to take in a whole bunch of small towns."

Reedy asked Olson if Vermillion's telecommunications center could eventually offer service to a larger area.

"We could, but it would take more equipment and more people," Karen replied. "But as you know, the governor wants one, in Pierre. Do Vermillion residents want one 911 answering point in South Dakota answered by Pierre? If you dial 911, are you going to wait for Pierre to dispatch an ambulance or a fire service?

"That's what it will come to, because that's what the bill says they are going to. They have to have contact with emergency responders, meaning they are going to have to change all of the radios over in the state to answer every single fire department frequency," she added. "There's hundreds of radio frequencies out there."

"I would question whether we ever see that or not," Reedy said. "I have to go along with the governor that we need to be prepared because the system that you have could very possibly be out-dated two years from now, and it's the same with all the rest of them. We need to keep current. I think that the state would probably be able to do that."

The bill states that the comprehensive telecommunications plan shall review current configurations of enhanced 911 centers throughout South Dakota, as well as for the provision of service to areas not presently served by a 911 center. The plan shall identify the costs, funding, services, and timetable for implementation of recommended configurations or other proposed changes.

The bill also calls for the comprehensive telecommunications plan to be based on the following goals:

(1) Enhanced 911 services shall be available from every telephone in South Dakota;

(2) All wireline and wireless customers shall reach an enhanced 911 center when they initiate a request for emergency services, by dialing 911; and

(3) All enhanced 911 services and facilities within the state shall conform to minimum technical, operational, and procedural standards.

Olson noted that parts of the state's present radio system are several decades old. South Dakota has fallen behind in state-wide radio communications, she said.

"What are you suggesting," Reedy asked.

"This bill should be killed," Karen said. "I don't think anything more should come from it. At the very least, some standards should come out it. I have no problem with standards, and nobody in the emergency services organizations has a problem with standards. Good standards will force consolidation, but I don't think the state should begin telling which counties that are going to have to begin to consolidate."

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