If you own a residential or commercial landline telephone in Mobile County, you’ll notice the emergency 911 fee drop significantly on your bill for October, from $4.75 to $1.60, where it is expected to remain for the next five years.
At the same time, cell phone users will see an increase, from 70 cents to $1.60. It’s part of a new rate structure, collected by the state, which will return the revenues on a set schedule back to the Mobile County Communications District to fund the county-wide 911 system and public safety radio communications.
The fee is probably the most visible of changes the district has taken recently, but last month, its seven-member board, appointed by the Mobile County Commission, approved what director Gary Tanner called the first loan in its history — a $34.9 million revenue bond to update transmission towers and other communications infrastructure. In order to retire the debt, the district pledged all revenues above its operating expenses for the next seven years.
“Historically this center has operated as a pay-as-you-go,” Tanner said. “Before, revenues were retained in escrow for a designated project, monies were saved, a contract was let and facilities were built. We were happy with that until the state did what they did, and we were concerned the new legislation would restrict our local authority.”
Tanner said the contract, which was awarded to Harris Communications, will go beyond new FCC regulations requiring public safety transmissions to be on a separate frequency from public works transmissions by also replacing two aging towers in the district’s eight-tower array. Afterward, the system’s coverage will be adjusted to eliminate dead areas, increasing countywide coverage from about 85 percent to better than 95 percent.
“Before, in a chase scene, the city of Mobile would lose radio contact at city limits, and we would have to patch through to the sheriff’s network,” he said. “Now it will be seamless, the sheriff’s office will be able to go on radio talk to a state trooper or the chief of police for Bayou la Batre or Citronelle or Mobile. We’ll still have some limitations in basements and major structures, but in 36 months, we’ll have the most up-to-date communication network in the entire country, giving total simulcast operability to all first responders in the county.”
Tanner, a former state senator and county commissioner, was promoted to director of the MCCD in June after former director George Williams resigned. Williams served for 17 years.
In July, the assistant director/homeland security position previously held by Tanner was filled by Charlie McNichol, a former Daphne assistant police chief and later, law enforcement coordinator for the U.S. Attorneys Office in Mobile. McNichol was forced to resign from his federal job after being convicted of a misdemeanor for leaking sensitive information regarding the Steve Russo corruption case in Orange Beach. Afterward, he worked in the private sector for DRC Group in Louisiana.
MCCD board member Noah “Trey” Oliver, a Sheriff’s Office employee who serves as warden of Mobile Metro Jail said he recommended McNichol for the job and didn’t find it a conflict of interest to be among the four board members who eventually approved his appointment. McNichol rose above 50 other candidates for the position, which pays around $80,000 a year, Oliver said.
“My job as a board member is to keep a close eye on those appointments and find the best person for the job. I voted for Gary Tanner, I actually wanted Gary to be promoted quicker, and there was no conflict there,” he said. “I think all the other board members should have went out and rustled up people to seek the job. But as far as Charlie, I invite you to look at the 51 applications. We wanted someone locally, familiar with all the jurisdictions involved, the county commission and the city councils, someone politically savvy and in tuned to local politics. Charlie was a dispatcher, managed dispatchers, is a graduate of FBI national academy, has management experience and institutional knowledge. The other people primarily had military and private experience.”
The district’s previous $4.75 monthly rate was imposed in January and only temporary, but was necessary to establish a “base distribution amount” for reimbursement when the newly-created state 911 Board took over fee collections and disbursements Oct. 1, Tanner said. Meanwhile, an administrative oversight in the collection process shorted the district $515,000 in revenue from AT&T for January and February, an amount the district is looking at recouping by implementing AT&T’s “Smart911” system.
In a special called meeting Sept. 30, board members did not commit to the plan, which would have essentially written off $284,000 of AT&T’s debt by entering into a five-year contract for the system. Smart911, which has only been adapted in Alabama in Lee and Houston counties, allows 911 operators to tap into a database where individual subscribers “create private online safety profiles to share with emergency dispatchers,” according to the company.
An AT&T representative told board members the database was non-searchable and information was only accessible when a phone number related to the account dialed 911. He said in Fulton County, Ga., it was used by more than 20 percent of the population. The total cost of the contract in Mobile County would be $354,000, to be paid in $5,900 monthly installments.
MCCD staff expressed reservations about how the information would be transmitted to law enforcement first responders, who apparently rely on a different IT system than that of county fire and medical crews. At least one board member was concerned about the district’s liability if the information wasn’t used or was used incorrectly, but Tanner said the liability was on AT&T’s subcontractor, Rave Mobile Safety. Ultimately, the board tabled the issue, citing a need for more information.
“I question to what extent it will be fully utilized,” Oliver said afterward. “I was talking to Charlie after the meeting and I said, ‘if we’re in a room together, and I have a heart attack, what are you going to do?’ He said, ‘I’d call 911’ and I said, ‘On whose phone?’ So the information related to my phone number would be useless. We need to know exactly how efficient that system is.”
Oliver said board attorney William Wasden was looking into other ways AT&T’s debt could be recovered, but the board was interested in an amicable agreement where neither party was penalized. Either way, Tanner said the county can have confidence the MCCD is operating efficiently.
“We have a reserve or savings of $3 million in case of emergency,” he said. “It’s a very well-run business and it took time to build up to that. The citizens of Mobile have a tremendous asset in the 911 operation. We receive around 350,000 to 375,000 calls a year, or a little over 1,000 a day. Every call has to be answered and we try to do it in a very professional and very efficient manner.”