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County approves contract for new emergency response system

St. Charles County hopes to have a brand new 911 emergency response system in place by next April.

The County Council with a 6-0 vote approved on Oct. 27 a $3.467 million bid from Emergency CallWorks, Inc., of Birmingham, Alabama, to build, deploy and operate the system for seven years. Councilman Mike Elam (District 3) was absent.

Jennifer George, the county’s assistant director of administration, said the county began to discuss updating its 911 system about a year ago.

Presently, the county has two separate systems – one for the city of St. Charles, and the other serving the county Sheriff’s Department, Department of Dispatch and Alarm and the cities of St. Peters, O’Fallon, Lake Saint Louis and Wentzville.

After discussing the need for an updated system, the county sought bids for one unified system, selecting Emergency CallWorks as the bidder to present for council approval.

Local and county officials say the current systems need upgrades because of aging equipment and to keep up with growth in the county.

The improvements will create a single system for law enforcement, fire, ambulance and public works communications, which would help eliminate the gaps in service crated by the patchwork of systems. But paying for the system may be expensive, particularly for the county municipalities, which do not pay for providing local dispatching under the current system.

George said the present 2-percent tariff on local service rates for land-based telephone lines to fund 911, approved by county voters in 1984, cannot support the purchase and operation of an improved 911 system.  In fact, in 2005 and 2014, the county loaned money from its capital improvement fund to maintain the system.

Fewer telephone users are using land lines, which the 2-percent tariff was based on. George said revenue from land lines in the county appears to be stable. However, she noted that the revenue doesn’t include cellphones, which more and more people are using as their primary phone lines.

The state legislature would have to provide the authority to charge cellphone operators a fee to provide additional revenue, which hasn’t happened, George said.

New software also is needed to upgrade aging equipment and allow access to new technology including video and other forms of messaging. While specific cost figures were not discussed at the council meeting, county officials were adamant that new technology, including software, is expensive.

Now, individual 911 calls are routed to individual jurisdictions or public safety answering points (PSAPS) depending upon the call’s location. PSAPS then dispatch emergency providers such as police or fire departments.

St. Charles County has eight PSAPS – St. Charles, O’Fallon, St. Peters and Wentzville police departments, as well as the St. Charles County Dispatch and Alarm agency, the county Sheriff’s Department and the county’s Emergency Management Agency.

Individual cities represented by the PSAPS want to retain the ability to dispatch 911 calls, citing that they feel they can do it faster and more efficiently than having one dispatching agency. But George said those cities will have to provide a share of the costs for that dispatching, because not enough money is available from the tariff.

The cost of each police department individually handling 911 dispatching would be too high, she said.

While a task force including representatives from city and county emergency responders has recommended, and the county council has approved, entering into a contract with Emergency CallWorks, the county still must enter new intergovernmental agreements with St. Charles, St. Peters, Lake Saint Louis, Wentzville and O’Fallon that will set their costs. That process is expected to begin in November, George said.

Cities and the county, she noted, have discussed these costs going back to last year and cities are expected to build the added costs into their annual budgets. In the meantime, the county is extending its agreement with AT&T Missouri, the operator of its present system, for eight months in 2015 until the new system is operational. The completion date on the new system is projected to be April 24, 2015.

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