Funding loss slows 911 upgrades


POSTED: Monday, August 10, 2009

During a recent hike to the tide pools in Makapuu, crashing waves swept a man onto jagged rocks.

Dispatchers tracked the man's location through the wireless enhanced 911 system after a friend called for help from a cell phone. Responders arrived within minutes, and the hiker suffered only minor cuts.

Since the inception of the wireless enhanced 911 system in Hawaii almost three years ago, dispatchers have relied on it to locate people in distress. Honolulu's 911 dispatchers receive about 1 million calls a year, an estimated 60 percent from wireless phones and 40 percent from land-line phones.

Law enforcement officials want to upgrade the system so it can better pinpoint a wireless caller's location and keep up with fast-paced technology, including text messaging. This especially will help those who are hearing-impaired, allowing them to text information to dispatchers.

Upgrades to e911, however, could be limited because of restricted funding.

The state earlier raided e911 funds set aside for operations and maintenance, diverting $16 million to balance the budget. Remaining is about $9 million, the same amount as a state-imposed annual spending cap.

Russ Saito, chairman of the wireless e911 board, said board members will need to ask legislators to increase expenditures to pay for timely upgrades. Members are asking all counties and wireless providers to develop a five-year plan and to prioritize their needs.

Some say annual operations and maintenance costs for the system alone, estimated at $5 million to $7 million, will take up most of the yearly spending cap, leaving little for upgrades.

“;If we don't upgrade now, we're going to be way behind,”; said Capt. Mike Correa, executive officer of HPD's Communications Division.

Gordon Bruce, director of the city Department of Information Technology, echoed Correa's sentiment.

“;It limits our ability to move forward quickly and provide public safety services that are necessary and expected by citizens,”; he said. “;Society is putting demands on the industry to provide tools. Who would've thought 10 years ago you would've used mobile phones for text messaging and e-mails?”;

Cell phone subscribers in Hawaii pay a 66-cent monthly fee that goes toward the e911 wireless fund.

Honolulu dispatchers currently use latitude and longitude coordinates via e911 to help track wireless callers.

Kauai will be the first county in which dispatchers will be able to receive text messages, photos and videos from wireless callers. About $3.8 million was allocated for the new system, to be implemented by 2011.

The funding was approved because Kauai's operation is much smaller than other islands', with five emergency dispatchers compared with HPD's 25.

Costs to modernize Honolulu's system are estimated at $20 million.