Pennsylvania 911 funding, hiring expected to remain challenging

A new report notes that Pennsylvania’s 911 system is in “the midst of a major transition,” but, despite staffing issues, frames future challenges as “opportunities” more than hurdles.

The Pennsylvania Joint Legislative Budget and Finance Committee heard a summary of the 911 Communication Services report, which was mandated by Senate Resolution 96 to examine the system’s condition.

“The backbone of the 911 system will look significantly different than it does today,” said Steve Fickes, project manager for the Pennsylvania Joint Legislative Budget and Finance Committee. “It is difficult to project future system needs based on data that is several years old.”

The lack of data as well as the changing nature of 911 calls in recent years complicates that work. From 2016-20, 911 call volume dropped by 15%, the report noted, while alarm calls from home security systems have increased, which bypass the 911 phone system and come over a 911 center’s administrative line.

Funding, which comes from phone surcharge revenues, has held steady at about $317 million annually. However, the expenses for county public safety answering points have grown by 22% since 2016.

The report predicted the gap between costs and revenue will continue to grow, and part of the issue may be the difficulty in ensuring Voice over Internet Protocol devices (such as Apple watches or nonphone devices that connect to the internet) are paying the required surcharge to support the 911 system.

One driver of the gap between those revenues and system costs comes from equipment upgrades.

“Personnel and operating expenses accounted for nearly 90% of all spending by the counties,” the report noted. “While personnel spending is the main driver in many counties, operating expenses increased by 66% over the period, primarily because of the need to update equipment.”

Personnel costs could also increase, given how difficult staffing has been in some parts of the commonwealth.

“Staffing is perhaps the most significant issue currently facing the county PSAPs,” Fickes said. “Staffing ranked as the most important issue in our survey of 911 coordinators.”

The report noted “challenges with hiring, retention, and compensation,” and suggested including 911 personnel in the definition of an emergency responder in state law to “further professionalize the 911 industry and bring light to this issue.”

To better use and share resources, the report also recommended combining some centers.

“Another area of opportunity is regionalization and consolidation. Act 12 encourages the counties to consider the efficiencies,” Fickes said, noting consolidation could create cost savings.

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