May 3 election for 911 surcharge ‘critical’ for emergency response

By: 
MEGAN LINSKI

Martin Marshall, county administrator, explains the consequences of not adopting the 911 surcharge on the May 3 ballot. Photo by Megan Linski.

County officials are concerned about possible repercussions for the Lenawee County Dispatch Center if the proposed 911 surcharge on the May 3 ballot does not pass.

“I can’t tell you how vital and important it is to have people communicate with us,” Lieutenant David Aungst of the Lenawee County Sheriff’s Department said. “We need this new technology.”

The surcharge proposes an increase from $1.18 to $3 per month for each Lenawee County cell phone and landline. The surcharge will result in $4.3 million generated over the next five years for the dispatch center, which will be used to replace the antiquated phone system with one that will allow dispatch to receive text messages, photographs and GPS coordinates from a citizen on scene. Funds will also be used for radio console upgrades, and for purchase of mobile and portable radios for all county first responders.

During a March 1 press conference, Aungst and Martin Marshall, county administrator, insisted that upgrading the current phone system is not an option. “Radio traffic breaking up happens more often than I care to admit,” Aungst said. “There have been scenarios where officers have come close to being hurt. Recently, an officer was making a traffic stop on Ridge Highway and got in a fight with the man he stopped. He was calling for help and dispatch couldn’t communicate with him. It sounded like static.”

Marshall related a similar story that happened last month, where a young boy was hiding in his room with a friend while his mother was assaulted outside. The two boys didn’t have a phone, but did have a device that could send and receive text messages. However, Lenawee County’s central dispatch does not have the ability to receive texts, so the boys were unable to message them for help. “They had to stay in there and listen to the assault go on until the guy left,” Marshall said. “Had we had 911 texting capabilities, responders would’ve been on scene much quicker.”

In a case outside of Michigan, a woman was driving when she got into an accident and drove into a pond. She was able to call 911 and reach the dispatch center, but because the center was unable to read her GPS coordinates, first responders couldn’t reach her in time. “The dispatcher ended up staying with her on the phone until the car filled up with water and she drowned,” Marshall said.

County officials want to avoid these circumstances by updating the current system. Marshall said that there has been some push back against the idea of bringing more technology into Lenawee County, but eventually, the system will have to be upgraded. “I know there’s a nostalgia associated with us being a rural county, but in this situation, do we really want to be the Barney Fife of dispatches?” Marshall said. “We’re so antiquated we’re not able to handle the calls we get each day. When people dial 911, they expect someone to be able to find them.”

The surcharge will last until 2021, at which point the county would have to ask for a renewal. Marshall does not think the renewal would go up in five years. “What we’re doing right now is updating equipment that has become obsolete,” Marshall said. “If we can get everything updated in a five year time frame, on an operational basis we wouldn’t need as much money as a three dollar surcharge update.”

The surcharge could not go back to the current rate of $1.18 in 2021, as the county predicts a $3.2 million expenditure in 2020. Marshall said that he doesn’t want Lenawee County to get into the situation where the phone system goes down, and because the system is so old, the county will be unable to get the parts to fix it.

“We’ve been operating on the same system for thirty-five years,” Marshall said. “Lena-wee County needs this. It’s critical.”

Informational videos on the benefits of the 911 surcharge can be found on the county website at http://www.lena-wee.mi.us/620/Lenawee-Lifeline-Information.

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