State inaction hurts emergency radio upgrade effort
Iowa's 911 system
THE PROBLEM: Some emergency agencies' radio communications could go dark on Jan. 1, 2013, if they do not upgrade their systems to meet federal "narrowband" requirements.
YOUR POCKETBOOK: One proposal to generate money for the upgrades is to increase the tax on each of Iowa's 2.2 million cellphones from 65 cents to $1 per month. (The land line tax is already $1.) Another option is to raise property taxes in some communities.
SPLITTING UP THE MONEY: Iowa's E-911 surcharge on cellphones currently generates $16.8 million a year. If the state increases the surcharge, the additional $9.2 million a year would be split: $2.3 million to the 119 dispatch centers across Iowa, and $6.9 million to a grant fund to help local police, fire, medical rescue and emergency management agencies upgrade their radio systems.
WHAT'S NEXT: Senate File 448, which increases the cellphone surcharge 35 cents a month, is being studied by three senators on a ways and means subcommittee.
Iowa police, firefighters, ambulances, hospitals, dispatch centers and others will lose their ability to communicate via two-way radio at the end of 2012 if they don't make upgrades required by the federal government.
Many small local agencies can't cover this expense, but attempts to address the issue are stalled.
Cities and counties are reluctant to raise property taxes. Legislation to allow the state to tax cellphone subscribers an additional 35 cents per month is languishing in subcommittee. And revenue from an existing $1-a-month tax on land lines is drying up as Iowans abandon them for cellphones.
Without the upgrades, as of Jan. 1, 2013, dispatch centers would still get 911 calls, but the emergency workers would no longer have working radios to receive details about the calls or to talk with each other once they reach the scene.
That's not a hollow federal threat: "That will happen without a doubt," said Bob Seivert, vice chairman of the Iowa E-911 Communications Council.
The mandate "may result in approximately one-fourth of the state being without radio coverage unless some corrective steps are taken to ensure continued coverage," according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency.
Local emergency agencies that fail to upgrade face fines up to $10,000 a day, cancellation of their Federal Communications Commission license to operate radios, and loss of communications capabilities, the analysis says.
One proposal to drum up cash is to increase the E-911 tax on Iowa's 2.2 million cellphone subscribers from 65 cents per phone per month to $1, or an extra $4.20 a year. But so far, the idea has failed to gain support in the Legislature.
Most lawmakers are not paying attention to the issue yet, said Sen. Tom Hancock, D-Epworth, a former fire chief.
"I can't get people to understand the sense of urgency here," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, when asked his opinion about the cellphone surcharge increase, answered: "It hasn't gotten on my radar yet."
House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, and Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley, R-Chariton, both said they knew little about it. Paulsen said of the bill, "If they send it over, we'll take a look."
Two of the three senators assigned to a subcommittee studying the bill have declined to sign off on it.
Sen. Merlin Bartz, R-Grafton, said he thinks the state should decrease the land line surcharge. Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, thinks state infrastructure money should pay for the upgrades rather than heavier taxes on cellphone users.
Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, supports raising the surcharge, but she said: "This is going to be a heavy lift."
An alternative funding source could be property tax increases in various communities across Iowa.
The federal upgrades are targeted at radio interference. Emergency workers' communications are being overridden by chatter from other agencies. The narrowband requirement will increase radio channels.
A lack of channels created a serious problem for the agencies that responded in Parkersburg and New Hartford on May 25, 2008, after an EF5 tornado killed nine people and injured more than 70 there.
"The level of traffic coming through was so immense there weren't enough channels to handle all the communication trying to take place," said Chris Luhring, who was Parkersburg's police chief then. "We used runners to keep communications over the airways to a minimum."
Some larger counties have already taken action to meet the federal mandate, including Dubuque, Johnson, Polk and Scott.
But smaller agencies, especially volunteer fire departments, are struggling to afford this, said Wendy Lensing, executive director of the Iowa Firefighters Association.
All dispatch center equipment, pager networks and two-way radios that operate on 512 megahertz or below must be upgraded by Jan. 1, 2013. Some radio systems can be reprogrammed, but some need to be replaced.
Hancock said lawmakers do not want to talk about a cellphone tax increase.
"But if people knew it was about 911, I don't think the 35 cents would bother them," he said.
Verizon lobbyist Frank Chiodo said that the increase can add up as the number of phones increases.
Small businesses paying for cellphones for, say, 25 or 30 employees wouldn't be able to afford the extra taxes, he claimed.
The higher tax would generate an additional $9.2 million a year statewide.
A survey by the Iowa Emergency Management Association shows upgrade costs just for the 51 county emergency management agencies that responded will reach $53.1 million.
Pottawattamie County's cost is $21 million. Most counties' costs are much lower, such as $200,000 for Carroll County or $80,000 for Hancock County.
Local agencies could borrow money if they knew they would be getting money over the years from the higher cellphone surcharge, said Kent Hartwig, a lobbyist for the Iowa Emergency Management Association.
But the 911 system needs expensive improvements beyond what is in this federal mandate, said Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, a professional firefighter in Cedar Falls. Law enforcement officials from different agencies in many cases can't talk to each other via radio, he said. The issue is referred to as interoperability.
"You'll have a situation now where troopers literally can't communicate with their sheriffs even if they're driving down the highway together," Hancock said.
Land lines are already taxed at $1 a month, but that money, which goes to E-911 service boards in each county, is dwindling.
Another problem: More Iowans are switching to "voice-over-IP" services such as Vonage and Magic Jack, which route calls over the Internet. Not all services connect directly to 911, and the 911 system can't always track where computer users are calling from unless they update their address, said John Benson of Iowa Homeland Security.
"If you're from Des Moines and you go to Shanghai and call 911 from your laptop, it's going to be answered here in Des Moines," Benson said.
For now, the federal government is requiring Iowa only to address the issue of increasing radio channels.
The FCC is showing no wiggle room, said Jim Bogner, Iowa's statewide interoperability coordinator. "They're serious about this mandate, and they're serious about this deadline," he said.
A second upgrade must be completed by Jan. 1, 2017.
"This places our 911 system in jeopardy if we don't have a stable funding source," Danielson said. "There's an expectation among the public that all these agencies are able to communicate with each other, and a call that comes in to 911 is able to quickly get to a 911 dispatch center."