Missouri legislature proposes statewide funding mechanism for 911 services

An issue that has faced lawmakers and the state’s counties for about two decades might finally have been addressed, as the Missouri House on Friday completed passage of a proposed statewide way to pay for 911 services.  This makes the first time such a bill has been approved by the legislature and sent to a governor.

An emotional Representative Jeanie Lauer presents a proposal for statewide funding for 911 that became the first such bill sent to a governor, after nearly two decades that the issue has been debated in Missouri. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

The issue consumed much of Representative Jeanie Lauer’s (R-Blue Springs) eight years in the House.  On Friday, as she is about to leave the chamber due to term limits, she got to see her work culminate in the passage of House Bill 1456.

The heart of the issue is that most 911 services in Missouri are paid for by charges on landline phones.  As fewer and fewer people have landlines, the amount of money each county receives to support local 911 has diminished, but efforts to charge the ever increasing number of cell phone users often met with too much resistance to pass.  Missouri has for years been the only state that doesn’t have a statewide 911 funding mechanism.

Lauer said that’s because there are so many players involved in deciding what such a mechanism should and should not include, it took years to come up with something they – and legislators – would all support.

“We have 114 counties and 163 representatives and 30-some senators, and everybody has something different that we’re trying to address and make sure that we can accommodate in the legislation so that everybody can be safe in Missouri,” said Lauer.  “It has been rather complex – a little bit like a Rubik’s Cube putting it together – but it came together and it is so, so exciting to have that done.”

The funding plan in HB 1456, Lauer hopes, will not only allow Missouri to have 911 service statewide – a handful of counties have no service at all – but will also allow counties to have the latest 911 technology.  That would allow emergency responders to do things like locate cell phones when a caller can’t give his or her location, receive texts, and other upgrades and functions that many Missouri counties haven’t been able to afford.

The issue has been an emotional one for Lauer.  In the eight years she’s worked on it she’s heard multiple stories of people who were in need of emergency services and their outcomes were worsened because they were in a part of Missouri where no 911 service exists, or they couldn’t be located because the 911 service hadn’t been upgraded.

“This has never been about a bill … it is about what it does,” said Lauer.  “Of all the things that we’ve done here in the Capitol and that I’ve been personally involved with, this truly has significant impact on the life and wellness of people, and I couldn’t be more gratified.”

Lauer and other lawmakers have seen several 911 funding proposals fail over the years, either for lack of support or by running out of time in the final days of a session.

HB 1456 would allow counties and certain municipalities in Missouri to seek voter approval for a fee of up to $1.00 on any device that can contact 911.  Areas adopting this new funding source would replace their current 911 funding source; they could not keep both.

Representatives Elaine Gannon and Glen Kolkmeyer congratulate Representative Jeanie Lauer upon passage of her 911 funding legislation. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

The bill would create a 3-percent charge on the purchase of prepaid phones, to go toward 911 funding.  A portion of that money would go to 911 service in the county the phone was bought in; the rest would go to a statewide fund to support and improve 911.

The bill would also address the need for 911 facilities in many parts of the state to consolidate.  Lauer said in Missouri’s 114 counties there are 185 Public Safety Answering Points, or PSAPs.

Under the bill, where consolidation is needed, voters could not be asked to approve a new funding stream unless a plan for consolidation is developed.  Lauer says some locations are ready to consolidate but need the bill to be passed to make it possible.

Now that legislature has voted to send the bill to Governor Eric Greitens, Lauer is hopeful it will be signed into law.

“He has been supportive at the very beginning.  I have continued to talk to his staff and they have continued to assure support, so I would certainly hope that he would find this important,” said Layer.

Greitens could sign the bill into law, veto it, or allow it to become law without his consent.

Earlier story:  Term-limited House members hopes for, at long last, statewide 911 funding solution’s success

Term-limited House member hopes for, at long last, statewide 911 funding solution’s success

The latest effort in a House lawmaker’s years-long quest to address 911 funding in Missouri has been sent to the state senate.

Representative Jeanie Lauer, who is in her final term in the House, has worked during most of her legislative career to create a statewide funding mechanism for 911 services. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click photo for larger version)

Representative Jeanie Lauer has been working for six years on a statewide way to fund 911 services.  That’s because some counties in Missouri don’t have it, and many that have it don’t have the latest technology that can locate cell phones or accept emergency text and video messages.  As fewer and fewer people use landlines – charges on which are one of the primary ways 911 services are paid for – counties are having more and more trouble paying for even outdated 911 service.

Lauer said the issue has long been personal for her.  Each year she has heard more and more stories of people who have needed emergency help and didn’t get it in time because they were in an area with poor or no 911 service.

“It is not just a bill.  This truly is something that is dealing with people’s life and their wellness, and at the end of every session it truly hits me emotionally to not have it accomplished like we would like to because I know until the next session we’re still going to lose people through death because of this situation,” said Lauer.

The issue has been around for more than a decade, predating Lauer’s legislative career.  At its core is that cell phone use continues to increase but Missouri remains the only state that does not collect a fee on cell phone usage to pay for 911.  Previous efforts to institute a charge on cell phones met with resistance, but Lauer thinks she has finally arrived at the solution.

House Bill 1456 would allow counties and certain municipalities in Missouri to seek voter approval for a fee of up to $1.00 on any device that can contact 911.  That fee could go up to $1.50 per device with special justification and approval from the state 911 service board.  Areas adopting this new funding source would replace their current 911 funding source; they could not keep both.

The bill would create a 3-percent charge on the purchase of prepaid phones, to go toward 911 funding.  A portion of that money would go to 911 service in the county the phone was bought in; the rest would go to a statewide fund to support and improve 911.

The bill would also address the need for 911 facilities in many parts of the state to consolidate.  Lauer said in Missouri’s 114 counties there are 185 Public Safety Answering Points, or PSAPs.

“That is ridiculous.  These facilities are so small they’re not providing the level of service, they’re usurping moneys that the areas don’t have to fund it, so it’s inefficient, it’s ineffective, and we’re not getting the response times to people that we need,” said Lauer.  “It’s doing a disservice to our citizenry because constitutionally we are required to keep our people safe, and we’re not.”

Under the bill, where consolidation is needed, voters could not be asked to approve a new funding stream without a plan for consolidation.  Lauer says some locations are ready to consolidate but need the bill to be passed to make it possible.

In recent years the House has approved legislation similar to HB 1456 but like so much legislation, it stalled out in the Senate.  Lauer is cautiously optimistic for better results this year.

“The difference this year may be that we have been able to run the Senate version of the bill through the Senate committee, and that was actually voted out by a vote of 9-1,” said Lauer.  “Then we come to the same point of getting on the floor in the Senate.”

HB 1456 was sent to the Senate on a vote of 111-31.

Lawmaker wants Missouri on track to next-generation 911

Some Missouri lawmakers think you should be able to send text, photos, videos, or data to 911, and they want to put the state on a schedule to achieve that goal.

Representative Lyle Rowland (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Lyle Rowland (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

A House Committee has been asked to consider House Bill 1094, offered by Cedarcreek Republican Lyle Rowland after he was approached by a friend who sits on the Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.  He was told people who are deaf could use text to communicate with 911 operators.

Rowland’s bill would require the Advisory Committee for 911 Service Oversight to develop a plan and target dates for Missouri to test, implement, and operate a next generation 911 system.

“This will provide our deaf communities a way of getting emergency help when it’s needed,” said Rowland.

The Committee heard from Opeoluwa Sotonwa, the Commission’s executive director.  He explained what it could be like for a person who is deaf or hard of hearing to use 911 in most of Missouri.

“A hard of hearing individual who speaks may be able to share his or her needs, but may not be able to hear questions being asked.  I may not be able to understand what action others are taking if I cannot hear them speak.  Moreover, I am not able to speak directly with a 911 operator,” said Sotonwa through an interpreter.  “You can count the resources used to track a suspect, evaluate the cost of replacing a house, and tally deaths of those who cannot receive help fast enough, however what is not measureable is the fear, insecurity, and indignity of the Missourians who are not able to access 911 services because our state’s technology is simply outdated.”

Representative Bruce Degroot confirmed as true what Sotonwa said would happen if, in most of Missouri, a person sends a text to 911.

“I did exactly as the witness suggested and texted 911, letting them know it wasn’t a true emergency, and sure enough I got a message back,” said DeGroot.  “’Make a voice call to 911 for help.  Text to 911 is not available.’”

Steve Hoskins, the Vice President of Association of Public Safety Communications Officials, told the committee his organization also backs the bill.  He said a next generation 911 system wouldn’t just help those with hearing problems.

“What if you’re calling 911 but the reason you’re calling is because you’re choking and you can’t speak?  That’s why we need this kind of technology,” said Hoskins.

No one spoke against Rowland’s bill.  The committee has not voted on it.