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Opposition is growing to Alaska’s plan for a new 911 call center in Palmer

Police dispatchers answer 911 calls at the Anchorage Police Department's emergency communications center on Wednesday, June 24, 2015. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

A state plan to improve 911 service in rural Alaska is being opposed by telecommunications firms that say it contains “catastrophic costs,” municipal officials who say it won’t deliver better safety, and some state legislators who say the state is sidestepping their desire to move slowly.

Under the plan announced earlier this month, the state will build a centralized trooper dispatch center in Palmer, replacing and consolidating an existing center in Ketchikan and contracted facilities in Wasilla and Soldotna.

The new Palmer center will be in charge of sending troopers out to assignments and work in tandem with an existing center in Fairbanks. When combined with new telecommunications equipment, the centers will create a system that allows dispatchers to know the precise location of cellphone callers across Alaska. While urban Alaskans already have that service, it is not available across the entire state.

Amanda Price, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Public Safety, said the new program will save lives, be more efficient and cheaper to operate than the state’s existing system. As the state adds troopers, it needs to make sure it can send those officers to the correct places.

“If we can get adequate personnel but we don’t have adequate 911 services, it doesn’t seem to be improving rural public safety,” she said.

But the Alaska Telecom Association, which represents small cellphone companies in rural Alaska, questions the cost for both the state and telecom companies. It says the costs are so large they could drive companies out of business and leave rural Alaskans worse off than they were before.

“They are claiming this can be done cheaply. To our knowledge — and we are the experts in telecommunications — there is no cheap way to do this,” said Christine O’Connor, executive director of the Alaska Telecom Association.

Differences in rural Alaska

In parts of Alaska, particularly urban Alaska, if someone calls 911 on their cellphone, the signal goes to a cellphone tower, and a system of hardware and software directs it to what’s known as a “public safety answering point” where dispatchers direct police, firefighters and ambulances to the caller who needs help.

Systems owned and operated by the cellphone company can figure out the exact location of a caller by measuring the distance from multiple cellphone towers. That information is automatically mapped and displayed to the emergency dispatcher, who can send help.

That system doesn’t exist in all of rural Alaska, particularly in places without local police departments.

John Rockwell, Alaska’s statewide 911 coordinator, said in some cases, 911 calls are directed to a 1-800 number that is then redirected to the troopers’ dispatch center. In places without local police or fire departments, it’s a way to provide 911 access.

“That is an example of some of the situations in remote Alaska. There’s a real variety, and it just depends on where you are and who the responders are,” O’Connor said.

Fatal consequences

Alaska State Troopers Capt. Richard Roberts said there’s a drawback to that particular approach. When a call comes in that way, it can arrive on the dispatch center’s business line and show up as “unknown caller.” The dispatcher doesn’t know who is calling or where they’re calling from.

Sometimes, the consequences are fatal.

In February 2018, Roberts was a standby official when 20-year-old Tatiana Wasky of Pilot Station called 911 on a cold evening. She said she was lost, that she had tried to walk from St. Mary’s, a village on the Yukon River, to Pilot Station, but got off the trail.

At the time, temperatures were minus 25 with windchill, and troopers called local search-and-rescue volunteers, who used their snowmachines to search for her. Wasky stayed on the phone as long as she could, but its battery drained in the cold. In one of her last calls to dispatchers, she said she could hear snowmachines in the distance.

They didn’t find her until the next morning. Wasky died of exposure later that day.

Roberts said another case sticks in his mind: A woman who was being assaulted but called 911 and hid her cellphone in a closet, thinking police could trace it. The dispatcher heard the assault but didn’t know where it was. The woman escaped, but it could have been worse, he said.

Cost concerns

Similar cases have been occurring for years. After a Bethel man died of exposure in November 2017, Gov. Bill Walker’s administration unveiled a two-phase plan to improve 911 service. Under his proposal, the state state would have spent $9.5 million on a new call center, then start a second phase involving better 911 service.

Rockwell said the approach under Dunleavy involves a $5 million plan, cheaper because DPS will be renovating an existing building in Palmer, not building a new one in Anchorage. That $5 million includes both phases, he said.

O’Connor said the association agrees that there is a problem with the state’s current 911 system, but the association’s 15 companies think the state’s solution will worsen things, not improve them.

In April, the state issued a proposal for a new 911 call intake system. As part of that proposal, cellphone companies will be responsible for carrying calls to the new center. To do so reliably, with no chance of a missed or dropped call, would be extraordinarily expensive, she said. She was unable to provide specific costs, saying companies keep that information confidential.

The state’s cellphone companies would also face a six-month deadline to make the change, Rockwell said. The Federal Communications Commission requires cellphone carriers to connect to 911 and enhanced 911 call centers when the center requests it.

If they don’t connect, they could face fines or sanctions.

Rockwell said the companies can apply for a waiver from that timeline, and he’d be happy to support such a waiver. O’Connor said that’s risky.

“FCC waivers are lengthy, complex processes with uncertain results. It is highly preferable that upgrades to 911 systems be developed collaboratively without involving a federal regulator,” she said by email.

After the state issued its proposal in April, the telecom association wrote Price, asking her to restart the project with more input from telephone companies. Price responded negatively, and relations between the two sides have devolved to the point that the telecom association didn’t show up to a technical workshop this month.

Opposition rises

As relations between the two sides have decayed, the telecom association reached out to legislators. Some of the Alaska Legislature’s 60 members have been sympathetic. In the Kenai Peninsula and Wasilla, the state has paid millions of dollars to local governments, which operate dispatch centers. In Ketchikan, the state has employed more than half a dozen workers.

“In our case, that’s nine positions that will be leaving the area, and in these difficult economic times, every job matters,” said Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, who opposes the plan.

In February, local officials including the Kenai Borough mayor, Ketchikan borough mayor, and officials from Wasilla and Houston, wrote a joint letter urging the state to reconsider.

They said they are concerned that the new call center could be slower to respond in emergencies and believe the state is understating the cost of the program. An estimate from Wasilla’s emergency communications manager suggested it could cost the state $12 million to $15 million more than the state has estimated.

“The issue is that it’s going to cost a significant amount of money,” Ortiz said.

Price and Rockwell said that’s not true.

“We need no more money, zero,” Price said.

Rockwell said the state will save $880,000 per year in operations costs because it won’t be paying contracts anymore.

When the Department of Public Safety discussed its plan with lawmakers this spring, it intended to put the new dispatch center in Anchorage. Members of the Alaska Legislature, responding to the concerns of the telecom industry and local governments, inserted language into next year’s state budget saying that DPS should not pursue an Anchorage call center.

This month, the state announced its arrangement with Palmer instead. Price said it was the best way to keep the project on track while also following the Legislature’s directive.

“That’s just ridiculous,” said Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai.

“They know good and well that wasn’t the intent. It was that the call center shouldn’t move forward until we get some questions answered,” he said.

Price said the state’s goal is to provide the same services in rural Alaska as urban Alaska. She said her department is willing to work with people who have concerns, but its goal is firm.

“Even if that takes a great deal of time, which we believe it might … we’re moving in that direction,” she said.

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