By MARK EVANS
Alan Wells, 911 director in St. Francois County since 1993, addressed the Ste. Genevieve County Ambulance District Board during the board’s monthly meeting last Thursday.
Wells updated the board on operations at the state-of-the-art joint communication and EOC center in Park Hills, which handles both counties’ emergency calls.
Ste. Genevieve and St. Francois County were trailblazers in 2011, combining their 911 services. Both counties had aging, outdated equipment in 911 buildings set up in the early 1990s. The expense of one county making all the needed upgrades was prohibitive.
It was estimated that the county would have had to pay over $1 million to bring its equipment up to date.
Ste. Genevieve County pays St. Francois County some $500,000 a year for the service.
However, that fee could increase if a tax measure in the neighboring county fails next month.
Wells explained how tax revenue on land line phones, once the main source of income for both counties, had dried up as cell phones took over. In 2014, voters passed a 3/8 of one cent sales tax measure to fund the operations. It had a seven-year “Sunset” clause, however, expiring this year.
St. Francois County voters will vote on April 6, whether to renew it.
Wells noted that prior to the sales tax coming in, revenue from land lines “was in the toilet,” as the number of land lines in St. Francois County dipped from 50,000 to 14,000 or so in about a three-year period. Ste. Genevieve County saw a similar percentage drop.
The Park Hills facility answers more than 350 calls a day, 365 days a year.
It also handles 911 addressing and mapping and has some of the most up-to-date equipment in the nation after the center was remodeled and expanded in 2016 and 2017.
Staff can take 911 calls from any of several regular sites, plus calls can be taken from Wells’ office, deputy director Tina Harris’ office and other offices.
In fact, Wells said, staff who have internet at home can even take 911 calls at home in an emergency.
Underground wires, that can be compromised by dampness and other issues, have been replaced by microwave signals.
During the past year a new addition was built around the existing 911 bunker, without an interruption of service.
The new facility includes a room with cots for staff to sleep over in case of a dire emergency. It also has shower areas and a kitchen. It even has an area for media briefings during emergency situations.
Emergency management shares use of the facility and Wells noted that an office is available in the event any county emergency management director needs to set up shop at the building during a disaster.
Wells is cautiously optimistic about the April 6 vote.
“I’ve not heard a lot of push back or negative on it,” he said. “It’s asking our citizens to leave it and keep it in place, not any additional or any less.”
It would take a simple majority to pass.
Wells indicated that if further consolidations with other counties takes place in the future, the cost for each participating county could feasibly come down.
He said right now the tax brings in about $2.5 to $2.6 million a year – just about covering operating expenses by itself. He noted that, should it fail, the current tax runs through Dec. 31 and that they have been able to build up enough surplus funds to operate an additional six months beyond that.
He added that the remodeling and expansion project has already been paid off. The tax should also allow him to continue to upgrade operations to keep up with rapidly-changing technology.
“Our biggest ticket item is radio communications,” he said.
Soon, they will need to move from analog radio communications before long, to one of a handful of newer technologies.
“So, once we get this tax reset, we’re going to consult and look at the communications structure for both counties and see what the options are and see what we want to do, and see what we can afford,” Wells said.
Wells also said that of more than 77,200 calls received per month, 91.3 percent are answered within 10 seconds and another 7.3 percent within 11 to 15 seconds. Less than 1/3 of 1 percent of calls take more than 20 seconds to be answered and none had taken over 30 seconds.
Wells said they are advertising in newspapers, on radio and television and through informational pamphlets.
“I’m also out doing speeches and talking everywhere,” he said, noting that this was his third such presentation that day.
SHRUM GIVES MONTHLY REPORT
Kendall Shrum, district executive director, reported that the district’s new ambulance was being put on a 2021 Ford chassis in North Carolina. It will be a Ford E450 with a gas engine.
He noted that another new vehicle will need to be ordered this fall, to go on the following fiscal year’s budget.
“We need to think about another remount in the fall,” he said.
He also pointed out that one of the district’s vehicles, a 2016 Dodge, has topped the 100,000-mile plateau. That probably puts it about halfway through its lifespan.
Shrum also reported that interviews are about to be held to fill two full-time positions on the staff. He said 26 people applied and 18 of them have continued the application process.
After a couple of employees had to be terminated in the recent months, Shrum said that he “will be a little more picky” in hiring new staff.
He said one of those positions could be filled by moving one of the people on the district’s part-time PRN staff.