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Missourians may face a 911 system tax

March 09, 1999
By: Jorge C. Alvarez
State Capital Bureau
Links: SB 628

JEFFERSON CITY - Cellular phone users will have to pay an extra 50 cents per month to improve the 911 emergency system under a measure that will appear on Missouri's April 6 ballot.

According to Allan Wells, campaign chairman and vice president of the Missouri National Emergency Number Association, the extra measure of safety that wireless phone users would gain, is "certainly worth the cost."

He said the new 911 system would allow travelers and others using wireless phones to reach the nearest emergency operator.

"People think they are making a local call, but actually they are not," Wells said. "The call goes first to St. Louis in 80 percent of the cases and an operator there tries to figure out where the call came from."

If the call goes to St. Louis, the operator must first transfer the call to the Missouri Highway Patrol, which then sends it to the county where the problem arose.

But sometimes, the call doesn't go anywhere at all. Wells said poor signal strength in rural areas and mistakes in transferring calls often result in botched requests for help.

Wells said he is also concerned that cellular 911 calls cannot be traced, so unlike landline calls, lost cellular calls cannot be re-established.

The 911 system would use search engines, like global positioning, in order to avoid complications when dialing the current 911 system from wireless telephones.

Currently, cellular phone users can dial star-55 to reach the highway patrol in an emergency. However, a research study conducted by AT&T found there is a high level of ignorance about the separate system.

The study found that while 90 percent of wireless users are aware of 911 as an emergency number, only 51 percent of the wireless users said they were aware of the star-55 emergency number, which is currently designated for reporting emergencies via wireless telephone to the highway patrol.

Sen. Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, said that with star-55 in place, there might not be a need for a cellular 911 system. "I think a public education campaign like star-55, or we can have public service announcementswould be preferable to the 50 cents (tax) or any kind of fee," Kinder said.

Columbia resident Alex Galenes said he would vote against the cell-phone tax. "Every time I turn around there is another tax," he said. "I do not notice where the problem is, so if there is not a real problem, it does not have to be fixed."

Bill sponsor Sen. Wayne Goode, D-St. Louis County, said he supports the plan because "there are many areas in Missouri where people do not have an immediate response when dialing 911 with a cell telephone, and this is a safety problem that has to be resolved."

Steve Veile, president of Communique Inc. and campaign coordinator of Missourians for Safety on the Road, said he thinks the U.S. Congress is going to demand the 911 nationwide. The U.S. Senate is already studying a bill.

"If April's ballot is passed Missouri would be prepared for that," he said.

The state Office of Administration estimates there are 900,000 wireless phones in Missouri. Considering this amount, the fee of 50 cents per month should generate $5.4 million in revenue annually.

The Office of Administration states that all revenues associated with this fee, except 5 percent for administration costs and board expenses, would be used to subsidize local jurisdictions with 911 emergency systems application.