Much like TV viewers have been warned of a switch from analog to digital, emergency crews must change their communications equipment by 2013. But for 911 responders, the federal government isn’t offering any money-saving coupons, and in Forest Park that means residents may have to pony-up.
On April 7, when local voters weigh in on a smattering of local offices, they will also be asked to adopt a $1 per month tax that would be funneled exclusively to upgrading radios and other devices used by police and fire personnel. That dollar would be charged monthly to any resident who has a telephone line in their home; wireless phones would not be taxed.
“We’re asking for one dollar more per month,” Fire Chief Steve Glinke said of the referendum. “That’s $12 per year.”
As proponents of the measure, Glinke and Police Chief Jim Ryan said that per household, the tax is minimal. Furthermore, state law regulates how such fees can be used, making it easier for residents to hold local agencies accountable.
However, Glinke and Ryan aren’t yet able to predict how much the new equipment will cost the village. The two chiefs said they’ll likely have a better sense of the price tag by the end of the month, but any estimate has a shelf life, and it’s difficult to guess how the price of technology might change.
A loose estimate provided from within the police department pegs the upgrade figure at $500,000.
If the departments pulled the money from within Forest Park’s budget without raising taxes, other services would have to go without. Whether taxes should be increased was discussed with village council members, said Ryan. A referendum was seen as the most attractive option.
“Any elected official, I believe, is leery on raising taxes,” Ryan said. “The money has got to come from somewhere.”
Mayor Anthony Calderone said he hasn’t made any appeals to voters in support of the referendum, nor does he plan to. Approving the measure is in the “best interest” of the community, but public officials have to be careful not to advocate for any referendum, in accordance with state law, he said.
Glinke and Ryan, both members of a local board that oversees 911 spending, said they are scheduled to meet with several groups in town to discuss the referendum.
“I feel that the 911 board is doing a responsible job in terms of thinking toward the future,” Calderone said.
Specifically what is being required of police departments, fire departments and even public works crews across the country is to move all radio communication to a narrower, digital format. The process is described as “narrow banding,” and would allow the Federal Communications Commission to squeeze more channels into the airwaves. The requirement that televisions switch from analog to digital is also part of this effort.
Police and fire departments that fail to adapt risk not having a radio channel, or band width, on which to communicate, according to Officer Craig Lundt, who oversees technology for the police department.
Part of the switch to digital also means that 911 calls will be routed differently. Industry standards haven’t been finalized, but it’s likely that mobile technologies will be incorporated into the 911 system in new ways, said Lundt.
Finalizing those standards is also likely to affect local costs.
Forest Park dispatchers, for example, cannot currently receive a 911 call via text messaging. Also, traditional phone lines allow call centers to pinpoint exactly where a 911 call is coming from. Mobile phones can be mapped to an approximate location, and the only address that’s available to emergency crews is the billing address.
“We’re hoping the citizens realize this is important,” Lundt said. “This is not something you can put off. When you dial 911, you need help.”