Ohio looks to create a statewide 911 system

Tethered to cell phones as most of us are today, it’s easy to assume 911 emergency service providers can find us anywhere, at any time. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Emergency services vary considerably from one area to the next and can be as spotty as cell service in a tunnel. If your car slides into a ditch, in some parts of the country you may have to wait hours or even days for emergency responders to reach you — and that’s assuming they’re aware you’re in distress and can find you.

Recognizing this, some lawmakers in Ohio have called for a statewide 911 system. House Bill 445 would upgrade the 911 infrastructure at both the county and state level to “Next Generation 9-1-1” systems. This would entail changing the monthly fees imposed on customers throughout the state and expanding the types of devices and services that are subject to the fees.

Before going into too much detail about the Ohio proposal, it’s useful to step back and look at broader issues and trends.

Remote areas tend to lack modern 911 systems

As a rule, the more remote an area, the less likely it is to have a modern 911 system — or any 911 system at all.

That said, sparsely populated South Dakota and Wyoming are working to “facilitate real-time cellphone location information sharing that would help to locate mobile device callers during emergent situations.” A dense population doesn’t guarantee better services. In the District of Columbia, which has 10,984.43 residents per square mile, the 911 system reportedly suffers from “inconsistent use of location determining technology tools.” The Call Handling Equipment configuration doesn’t automatically transmit cell callers’ locations for better accuracy, so if you’re unable to say your address, emergency responders may have trouble finding you.

This is a big part of the problem, and not just in the District. While your cell phone may be able to send an emergency signal, it will do you no good if the nearest emergency service provider doesn’t have the technology to receive the signal or pinpoint your location.

Technology is key. There are multiple tiers of 911 systems and services, each more advanced than the last. With basic 911 services, which are tied to a landline, you need to be able to talk, explain what’s happening, and provide an address. Enhanced 911, or E911, is essentially Basic 911 plus caller ID; it shows the address of a traditional wired phone line. E911 is commonly available only in areas with a DSL-level communications network.

Cell phones need different technology because they aren’t linked to a landline. 3G or newer phones usually contain a satellite chip and dialing 911 should activate the satellite chip and transmit your location. However, to receive that information, the public service answering point, the 911 call center, needs to have the latest and greatest equipment — and often it doesn’t. The type of equipment needed to accept satellite information is typically found only in major metropolitan areas.

Where 911 systems haven’t been updated, math is used to figure out the location of a wireless 911 call. But that takes time. The law enforcement officer has to put in a request to the cell phone carrier, then they find the person in the basement with the abacus who gets the data and figures out the math.

This is an exaggeration, of course, but the point is valid. Many 911 legacy systems can’t receive or understand messages sent by a cell phone. Emergency responders will find you, but  it may be two days after your call.

The problem with outdated, local 911 ordinances

Many existing 911 ordinances don’t account for modern technology. This can lead to inadequate funding.

911 services are usually local, operated at the city or county level, and funded through monthly taxes and fees on each phone line. The ordinances governing these services and fees are often extremely basic — maybe a few sentences long. They’re also usually 40 or 50 years old and use outdated language that often doesn’t jibe with modern technology.

The language of statutes is important because it explains how the taxes and fees that fund 911 services are calculated. Unfortunately, how existing fees apply to new technologies often isn’t clear. For example, legacy ordinances may apply one tax rate to an “extension” and another rate to a “trunk,” but since the extensions and trunks used in voice over internet protocol (VoIP) aren’t necessarily the same as the extensions and trunks used in land lines, providers are often left wondering how to calculate the tax due. And unfortunately there’s usually a dearth of good information in the statutes to guide them. Compounding the matter, audits for 911 collection tend to be relatively rare in all but a handful of locations since the law enforcement agencies running the programs are often not equipped to conduct audits. For better or worse, this tends to mean questions go unanswered.

Calculating the proper taxes and fees is especially challenging for VoIP because VoIP phones typically can’t connect with 911 systems without going through a paid third-party service. Existing ordinances generally don’t mention these third-party service providers because VoIP didn’t exist when they were written.

911 services are expensive to establish, maintain, and staff. Many cities and counties can’t even afford basic 911, and if they have basic 911, they can’t afford to upgrade it so their systems can connect with VoIP or cell phone systems with satellite chips — the type of technology that would allow them to find a person calling for help from a cell phone in real time. Updating ordinances to account for new technology would facilitate the collection of the 911 taxes and fees that are needed to fund these services.

Switching to a statewide 911 system can help ensure emergency services are available even in extremely remote and rural areas.

Filling service gaps with statewide 911

Historically, efforts to establish statewide systems have met with resistance because of the urban/rural divide. Taxpayers in urban areas often don’t want to pay to fund emergency services in remote areas.

Those barriers are starting to come down thanks to cell phones. Just as urbanites expect to be able to access Google maps and Yelp when they travel the country, they expect to be able to reach 911 services wherever they are. And they may be a little more willing to pay for this kind of access than in the past.

A few states are already working to create statewide 911 services (e.g., Tennessee has a monthly statewide 911 surcharge). Ohio is looking to do the same with House Bill 445.

Ohio

HB 445 would require an updated 911 steering committee to advise the state on implementing, operating, and maintaining:

  • A statewide emergency services internet protocol network (ESINET)
  • A statewide Next Generation 9-1-1 core-services system (NG 9-1-1)
  • The dispatch of emergency services providers

The new enhanced 911 system would be capable of providing both enhanced wireline 911 and enhanced wireless 911, which would include services for communicating voice, text, data, and video. The measure would also expand the definition of “communications device or service” to include:

  • Multiline telephone systems (MTS)
  • Nonvoice messaging devices
  • Sensors and similar devices that generate data-only messages like photos or videos
  • Wired or wireless telecommunications
  • Voice over internet protocol service (VoIP) 

System updates would be funded in part by a separate NG 9-1-1 access fee of .005% of the sale price of a prepaid wireless calling service for retail sales occurring in Ohio. Entities required to collect the wireless 911 charge or NG 9-1-1 access fee must keep “complete and accurate records relating to sales with respect to the charges and fees” for four years, and allow the Tax Commissioner to inspect these records upon request.

The seller of the prepaid calling service would need to collect the NG 9-1-1 access fee from the customer and disclose the amount of the fee at the time of the retail sale. As currently written,

HB 445 stipulates:

  • The NG 9-1-1 access fee applies to the entire nonitemized price when a prepaid calling service is sold alongside other products or services for a single, nonitemized price
  • The NG 9-1-1 access fee is generally exempt from state and local taxation
  • Receipts from NG 9-1-1 access fees imposed under the 9-1-1 provisions are not included as “gross receipts” under the commercial activity tax law

There’s of course no guarantee Ohio HB 445 will become law, but whatever the fate of the bill, it serves as a good bellwether. There are a lot of problems with the way 911 services are funded in many states, and transitioning to modern, state-administered, state-funded systems could bring significant improvements.

The Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act of 1999 (911 Act) was created to improve public safety by “encouraging and facilitating the prompt deployment of a nationwide, seamless communications infrastructure for emergency services.” Transitioning from outdated local systems to modern statewide systems would bring the nation closer to making that a reality.

Avalara for Communications can help you streamline collection and remittance of 911 taxes and fees.

Cover photo by Canva

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