A new law could provide Cumberland County more revenue to update its emergency communications capabilities and provide better wages to recruit and retain the emergency dispatchers who man the E-911 system.
“The change for the consumer is 34 cents, but it would be a major help for us,” said Eric Ritzman, director of the Cumberland County E-911 communications director. “We’re hoping that it will add about a third to what we’re currently getting from the state.”
At one time, counties charged each phone line a 911 fee, $1.50 for residential lines and $3 per commercial line, which was paid to the local district. Cellphone and Voice Over Internet Protocol phone service, which transmits calls via the internet, paid $1 per line, which went to the state.
“When that was done, cellphone and VOIP was just a small portion of it,” Ritzman said. “Those two things have swapped places.”
As consumers turned to cellphones or VOIP services, local funding for 911 services fell. In 2015, Tennessee approved a law that set the 911 fee at $1.16 per line — no matter what type of service.
The funds are collected by the state then distributed to 911 districts across the state.
If approved, the bill would increase the fee to $1.50 per phone.
“We’re on a fixed income right now,” Ritzman said. “We’re structured like a utility district, but we can’t raise our rates without legislation.”
The Cumberland County E-911 District maintains equipment for emergency dispatch services. The technology has about a five-year lifespan, Ritzman said. Upgrades of software, computers and other equipment can cost $150,000 to $200,000.
“When you’re using something 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, it gets more than normal wear and tear,” said T.J. Williams, assistant director for the agency.
In June, the Cumberland County E-911 District took over operation of the county's dispatch center. Before that, the district, county and Crossville governments shared funding and oversight for the center.
The county and city of Crossville each agreed to pay $550,000 annually as part of a two-year agreement.
“I think when people see the 9-1-1 fee, they think that pays for all 9-1-1 services, and it only pays for a small part of it,” Ritzman said. “It would be nice if we could get it where that covered everything and we could reduce property tax.”
When fully staffed, the dispatch center includes 24 dispatchers who provide consolidated dispatch services for 10 agencies: Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office, Cumberland County Fire Department, Cumberland County Emergency Medical Services, Crossville Police Department, Crossville Fire Department, Cumberland County Emergency Management Agency, Fairfield Glade Fire Department, Fairfield Glade Police, Lake Tansi Security Police and Cumberland County Rescue Squad. The department can also assist Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency and Cumberland Mountain State Park and can transfer calls to the Tennessee Highway Patrol.
Ritzman said additional funding could bolster the department’s pay scale, allowing the center to offer more competitive wages with other communication centers in the region and local employers who can offer jobs without the 12-hour shifts and stressful jobs.
“And, it will allow us to do some facility upgrades,” Ritzman said. “With the growth in call volumes, we’re going to have to have some extra space.”
Last year, the emergency communications center fielded 113,372 computer-aided dispatch incidents — about one-third of which were 9-1-1 calls. The others were calls with officers, administrative calls and other calls asking for an officer.
Ritzman and Williams have set a goal of earning accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies for dispatch services. The process includes a comprehensive review of policies and procedures. Once complete, they will host a peer review to prepare for an on-site review by CALEA representatives.
As part of the change in operations, Ritzman and Williams interviewed dispatchers to ensure they were on board with changes. They found everyone wanted to improve the department. Ritzman has also worked on additional training to provide employees beyond the state required minimum standards, including working with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International.
It’s a hard job, Ritzman and Williams said, praising the dispatchers who work to get help on its way to people experiencing an emergency.
“You talk to everybody on what is probably the worst day of their life at that point,” Ritzman said.
Williams said Cumberland County is also still a small community and dispatchers have occasionally fielded calls from people they knew.
And, unlike the responders, dispatchers may not get the closure with a difficult situation they’ve worked.
Ritzman looks for ways to support his staff while they’re at work.
“The emotional swing is pretty wide,” Ritzman said. “The job is often unappreciated and more difficult than people realize.