As dispatchers and staff at the Metropolitan Emergency Communications Association (MECA) celebrated National Public Safety Telecommunications Week April 15-19, the board that governs the agency voted on April 17 to table a proposal to replace the 911 system.

“Unless someone flags down an officer, we’re the first voice people hear when they call with a problem,” Doris Golden, the operations manager at MECA, said.

Karen Blevins, the director of the Jefferson County Office of Emergency Management, who also supervises MECA, said in an invitation sent to elected officials inviting them to visit MECA that “Across the nation, in times of intense personal crisis and community-wide disasters, the first access point for those seeking all classes of emergency services is 911. The local and emergency communications centers that receive these calls have emerged as the first and single point of contact for persons seeking immediate relief during an emergency.”

Before a luncheon to honor dispatchers, the MECA Board, which consists of the Jefferson County judge, sheriff, mayor of Pine Bluff, Pine Bluff police and fire chiefs, a representative of the 911 Board and the director of the Office of Emergency Management, met to hear an update on recently-adopted legislation by the Arkansas General Assembly, and to talk about upgrading the current telephone system.

“We’re down to the wire,” Blevins said, adding that the contract with AT&T, which provides the center’s telephone service, expired in 2017, and “AT&T has been letting us go month to month. They want us to go Internet and we need that to move us to the next generation.”

County Judge Gerald Robinson asked that further discussion be tabled until another meeting because Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington and White Hall Mayor Noel Foster, who is the chairman of the 911 Administrative Board, had prior commitments and could not make the meeting. In addition, Blevins said she would contact AT&T so they could have a representative on hand to answer any questions board members might have.

According to the Public Safety Act, (Act 660 of 2019), next generation 911 means a “secure, internet protocol-based, open standards system comprised of hardware, software, data and operational policies and procedures,” which will include the capacity “to process all types of emergency calls, including voice, text, data and multimedia information.”

Blevins also said upgrading the system “would be expensive.”

She said it would cost $35,000 per position (dispatcher). MECA has seven positions, which means a cost of $245,000.

“We’ve used AT&T since MECA began, and their technicians provide us exceptional service.”

Blevins went on to say that with an internet-based system, MECA would be able to receive information from text messages, video and other media that they cannot receive now. They would also be able to send that data in real time to police and fire departments.

The legislation also replaces the old Arkansas Emergency Telephone Services Board with the Arkansas 911 Board which, among other things, will be responsible for developing a plan to fund 77 public safety answering points in the state.

Blevins said there are currently 126 sites statewide that serve as emergency dispatch centers, and those would be replaced with one per county, plus one in Little Rock and another in North Little Rock.

By February 2020, each county will also be responsible for completing locate-able physical addresses and convert those to the 911 system. Blevins said that currently, calls to MECA that are made on landlines show the physical address of the caller, while calls from cellular telephones show only the tower where the call bounced off of.

MECA is funded by service fees collected by the phone companies on both cellular and landlines, and on a proportional basis by user agencies, based on the percentage of use. Pine Bluff, being the largest user, pays 70.76 percent of the agency funding. Jefferson County’s share is 25.35 percent, and the other municipalities in the county pay between 2.25 percent (White Hall) and .04 percent (Sherrill).

With the decline in the use of landline telephones and the increase in the number of cell phones, the legislation also changed the service charge that phone companies collect from customers, raising the fee for cell phone lines from .65 cents per month to $1.30 per month for each line. The service charge for landline phones did not change. The Arkansas 911 Board administers the distribution of that money to each county, based on population.