Charges for using EMS: a California town’s plan sows confusion
Tracy, California, made headlines when word incorrectly got out that it would charge $300 for each 911 call. Under a law passed last year, most households will pay less than $50 annually to offset the cost of emergency medical services.
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The EMS cost recovery program could be implemented as early as April. But the fees have already sparked wide debate well beyond the city and state. Experts say the move spotlights several concerns about the costs of maintaining 911 systems.Skip to next paragraph
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The nation’s 41-year-old 911 network has of late been besieged by stories of million-dollar-software crashes, sloppy dispatchers, and too many “victims” who call the number to report their own child’s refusal to go to school.
“The plight of local governments is real, and the action by the Tracy, California government will serve to call attention to how dire the situation has become,” says Robert Field, professor of law the Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
But people within government say the cost of purchasing 911 technology, maintaining the equipment, and paying staff to oversee it is a long-term cost.
In Sedgwick County, Kan., fire chief Ron Blackwell said in August, 2008 that he was "increasingly concerned" about a new $1.5 million computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system which firefighters complained wasn’t reliably alerting them to incidents.
And up to 80 percent of 911 calls in the US are non-emergencies. In Hayward, Calif., police charged a man in February, 2008 for making 27,000 false calls to 911. California that year passed a law that levies up to $250 fines against even legitimate callers who call more than once for the same emergency.
Tracy's Churchill says more municipalities will wrestle with funding 911 services in the future. "I don’t doubt the financial stress of 911 systems, which are used as the family doctor in some communities. You can call 911, get ambulance service, go to the front of the line at the emergency room, and not pay – for a headache."
A bill signed into law by President Bush on July 23, 2008, created the nation's first national 911 oversight board. It was intended in part to move the national system from analog to Internet Protocol (IP), which is less expensive and capable of handling new technology standards
And Richard Laermer, who has written a book “2011: Trendspotting,” says the trend is not as new as most people might think.
“911 is a system that's been strapped for years, as have fire departments and the emergency medical types,” he says.