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By Michael Boyd Jr.
STE. GENEVIEVE HERALD
(Note: This story is a two-part series on the Joint 911 system between Ste. Genevieve and St. Francois Counties, with Perry County possibly joining the merger. Part 2 of this story will run next week in the Herald).
“9-1-1, what is the location of your emergency?”
Everyone is familiar with that first sentence when calling for help.
Lately, the emergency phone number is getting a lot of attention – or fussing – now that Perry County is fighting to keep its 911 Dispatch Center, which may be moved to St. Francois County despite a merger agreement that was signed on Dec. 18.
The drive “Keep 911 Local” in Perry County loudly is voicing its concern over the possibility of losing its emergency dispatch service to St. Francois County.
Current and former dispatchers, as well as emergency responders and law enforcement are part of the drive to keep 911 in the county, according to the Republic Monitor newspaper in Perryville.
After speaking against the move in October to the Perryville Board of Aldermen, Perry County residents have since signed a petition in January to create a ballot initiative – which would include a new tax – for its ballot on April 2. There also is a Facebook page to keep residents updated.
Just so happens, Ste. Genevieve County itself is very familiar with the matter, being in this very situation in 2010.
That was when Ste. Genevieve County saw its local emergency dispatch center moved to the St. Francois County 911 Emergency Communications facility – located in the town of Park Hills (formerly Flat River) – dispatching for all police, fire and EMS (ambulances) services. The move became final in 2011.
The Park Hills center is now known as the Alan Wells/St. Francois County Joint Communication and Emergency Operations Center.
Despite some fussing back then from citizens here, the change has been entirely worth it according to every emergency responder who has ever been asked about it over the years, on or off the record.
“Over in St. Francois County, it’s wonderful,” said Randy Ruzicka, presiding commissioner of Ste. Genevieve County. “The switch over to there pre-dates my time here, but it’s been wonderful. We’re very happy with it and that’s why we continue to use them.”
Ruzicka echoed every major emergency official here about the current 911 System provided by St. Francois County and its long-time director Alan Wells, saying that the center is top notch both in services as well as its facility.
“We’ve always had a good working relationship with St. Francois County,” said Capt. Jason Schott of the Ste. Genevieve County Sheriff’s Office, who also is chairman on the 911 Task Force.
Basically each local emergency official said that the current version helped prevent a local crisis for Ste. Genevieve County, both with emergencies and funding.
“I remember (former presiding commissioner) Garry Nelson talking about it, and there were issues then with the one here,” Ruzicka said. “With technology, the way it advances at such a rapid pace, (Ste. Genevieve County) was falling behind. We couldn’t keep up with what was needed.”
Not only falling behind, but the cost to maintain the needed equipment was astronomical. So much so, this county also could not afford to continue 911 here.
“It would cost too much for us to go out on our own,” said Ste. Genevieve County Emergency Manager Felix Meyer, who’s also on the 911 Task Force. “We just don’t have the equipment to man it or anything like that.”
Ruzicka was more blunt about it all.
“It was going to be in the millions,” he added. “That was when (Ste. Genevieve County) checked into Alan Wells’ idea, and it was decided that we were saving (money) by simply using their service. And it’s proven itself to work very, very well.”
STATE OF THE ART
According to those who spoke with the Herald for this article, the St. Francois County 911 Center is very serious and extremely dedicated when it comes to dispatching emergency services for both counties.
Under Wells, the St. Francois County 911 Center uses the most advanced emergency response technology in the United States.
“They’re 10 times better,” Meyer said. “Their personnel is trained, and they maintain their training. And with the new upgrades, it’s going to be even more better. They’re upgrading a lot of the microwaves (for signals on the towers) and radio equipment. There’s new antennas going up our county – a new one down in St. Marys, we’re replacing one at the 911 office in town, they’re putting a new one out on the south end of town, and out west (around Wolf’s Creek).”
With the old landline phones going by the wayside, the massive use of cellular phones as the main type of communications for citizens worldwide created a tremendous problem for the old 911 system.
The Wells Center is the first pilot program in the nation to use Next Generation 911 technology by Altos, an international company, thus allowing those in distress to call, and now text, information via cell phones.
And now the system can pinpoint the individual’s cell-phone location with the new technology, unlike the old version.
The previous system could not receive texts, Wells said in an older interview.
Well’s idea of a joint 911 service between the two counties sparked numerous other counties to copy it, thus making him a pioneer in the service.
However, counties within the Show-Me State did not have much choice anyway.
It was mentioned in the past that Missouri kept reminding its counties that the state was not going to help individual counties and cities until they consolidate their 911 systems.
It is something Perry County may have to consider, and might be the one obstacle it may not be able to overcome, especially on a financial basis.
Look for Part 2 of this story in the Feb. 14 edition of the Herald.