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Published: Friday, 7/24/2009

Strapped states raid 911 funds for mobile calls

ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK - More than $200 million collected from cell phone users for upgrades to the 911 system has been diverted in the last two years to plug state budget holes, keep campaign promises, and, in at least one case, buy police uniforms, an Associated Press analysis has found.

Dispatchers say the diversion of money comes at the expense of improvements that would give crime and accident victims more ways to reach responders. Someone who has been kidnapped, for instance, may not be able to talk but might be able to quietly send a text message or a photo.

Cell phone subscribers in nearly every state pay anywhere from 20 cents to $1.50 a month for what is described in their bills as 911 improvements.

In some states, the analysis found, less than half that money is actually going to help emergency dispatchers keep pace with the features of smart phones.

As states hammered by the recession seek ways to balance budgets, the 911 money is tempting:

•In New York, only 19 cents of the $1.20 the state collects from each subscriber each month goes to emergency calling services. The rest pays for uniforms for the state police, a wireless network for emergency responders, and the state's general expenditures.

•In Wisconsin, a new 75-cent monthly fee was to pay for ongoing 911 operations and improvements. When the state's deficit grew, the state decided to divert $100 million in the next two years to local governments to reduce pressure to raise property taxes.

•In Arizona, lawmakers funneled $25 million from its emergency telecommunications fund, halving its size, and cut its monthly 911 cell phone fee to 20 cents. As a result, the fund could be out of money within three years.

"The issue of (fund) raiding has been a trickle for a few years, and now we're seeing the faucet on full blast," said Dane Snowden, vice president of external and state affairs at wireless industry group CTIA.

A highly publicized round of call center upgrades is nearly complete, allowing 911 dispatchers to automatically pinpoint cell phone callers. But emergency officials say that's no reason to raid funds set aside for future upgrades. After all, voice calls are just one of many things phones can do.

Dispatchers would like the capability to receive photos, videos and text messages from cell phone users in danger. Photos shot by witnesses with camera phones have already proved useful in catching bank robbers and flashers, for instance. Getting those photos to 911 centers - which could get them to police faster - could help solve crimes.

In several cases in recent years, kidnapping victims have summoned help by sending text messages. But because they can't send directly to 911, they've had to use intermediaries.

Upgrading call centers to handle text and video messaging would cost tens of millions of dollars per state, according to the National Emergency Number Association.

A complete accounting of how 911 money is spent in all states is not available. The Federal Communications Commission has been collecting information at the request of Congress, and is expected to report its findings soon.



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