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story.lead_photo.caption Sen. Jason Rapert (left) and Sen. Missy Irvin join in the Senate chamber in applauding Sen. Ricky Hill (bottom) during an exchange over a bill concerning the reorganization of municipal governments. - Photo by Thomas Metthe

A bill is in the works to transform Arkansas' 911 network from analog to an Internet protocol.

It will allow callers to use wireless and Internet-based devices to call 911 and transmit text, images, video and data, according to a news release from the County Judges Association of Arkansas.

"If we can upgrade to the system they're looking at, we could pinpoint people calling from their cellphones and get to them," said Scott Bradley, executive director of the Arkansas Sheriffs' Association.

With the state's current 911 system, cellphone calls ping off the nearest cell tower, and that could be across a county line, Bradley said.

"It just depends on which tower the call hits," he said. "It can send you to the wrong 911 dispatch."

The proposal was announced Monday at a news conference at the state Capitol in Little Rock.

[RELATED: Complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature]

"These changes will make the network faster and more accurate," according to the release from Christy L. Smith, communications director for the Association of Arkansas Counties.

State Sen. Jason Rapert of Conway and state Rep. Michelle Gray of Melbourne, both Republicans, said they plan to file the bill, but the release didn't say when.

"The 2019 Arkansas Public Safety Act is a comprehensive bill to transform the state's 911 system, expand broadband, and provide necessary updates to the Arkansas Wireless Information Network for the safety of Arkansans," the news release quoted Madison County's County Judge Frank Weaver as saying. Weaver is president of the County Judges Association.

"By creating efficiencies and improving technology in 911 service, our state will be better prepared to respond to a citizen in need of help," Gray said.

"Public safety and infrastructure are the two most important roles of government," Rapert said. "This bill will improve both."

The proposal also calls for reorganizing the Emergency Telephone Services Board into the Arkansas 911 Board, which will work with the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management and will be responsible for implementing and governing "Next Generation 911" on a statewide basis.

The proposal would reduce the number of "public safety answering points" in Arkansas, according to the release. That consolidation will save money and reduce the number of times a caller is transferred.

In 2016, Arkansas counties and cities subsidized 911 by $25 million, according to the release.

"This amount grows each year and is unsustainable," Smith wrote. "The Arkansas Public Safety Act will repeal three fees: local 911 tariffs, the Arkansas universal service charge, and the emergency telephone service charge. It will establish a uniform public safety connectivity charge of $2.25. Instituting a single, uniform charge of $2.25 will create an average decrease of 32 cents on landline phone bills and an average increase of 47 cents on mobile phone bills."

The connectivity charge will generate $38 million in new funding to support the transformation of the 911 network ($18 million), to expand and maintain the state's broadband infrastructure, assist in the shift of 911 to Next Generation 911 ($8 million), and to fund upgrades and maintenance for the Arkansas Wireless Information Network (AWIN), which is the statewide public safety communication system for first responders ($12 million), according to the release.

State Rep. Keith Slape, R-Compton, said he is a co-sponsor of the bill in the House.

Slape, a former Newton County sheriff, said the bill will be particularly helpful for rural counties. He said Newton County has been working on its 911 mapping system for 11 years.

"The entire state will be uniform," he said. "I think it's a good bill."

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he liked the looks of the draft legislation.

"I appreciate the legislative sponsors and the counties for their hard work in addressing some critical needs of our state," Hutchinson said. "Two of my priorities are the reform of our inefficient and costly 911 system and the modernization of our AWIN public safety communications assets. This bill addresses both public safety priorities.

"My administration is currently reviewing the draft legislation to closely examine the costs, governance structure and other details. I look forward to working with Sen. Rapert, Rep. Michelle Gray and Rep. Lanny Fite as this legislation goes through legislative review and amendments are offered."

State Desk on 02/06/2019

Print Headline: Bill in pipeline to use wireless protocol for state's 911 network

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