Call to consolidate 911 answering centers meets resistance

LISBON – A Highlandtown firefighter again suggested Columbiana County’s 911 committee consider consolidating to a single answering center like most other counties.

The suggestion came at this week’s committee meeting from Jeremiah Cole, a captain with the Highlandtown Fire Department, who said before volunteer fire departments would prefer to have one central answering center handling all the calls.

“Let’s do it,” he said.

Under the county’s plan, 911 calls are routed to one of five answering centers – the Columbiana, East Liverpool, East Palestine and Salem fire departments, as well as the sheriff’s office – with each continuing to pay the salaries and benefits of their dispatchers. The committee pays for the 911 equipment and maintenance agreements at these answering centers.

Robert Emmons, the county’s 911 director, disagreed with Cole, saying a single answering center drives up operating costs for the 911 system, and other counties are looking to Columbiana County as a model of how to save money.

Salem Police Chief J.T. Panezott said Salem wants to continue answering its own 911 calls. “The people in Salem want their people to get the calls,” he said, which is a sentiment likely shared by the other communities that serve as answering centers.

A single answering center would probably be located at the sheriff’s office, requiring the sheriff to hire additional dispatchers and possibly require additional 911 funding. Emmons said personnel costs are the most significant expense in any 911 system.

Former county Commissioner Gary Williams, who still serves on the committee, pointed out they could barely get voters to approve a monthly landline phone tax of 50 cents to help fund 911 and this was after efforts to get a property tax passed were rejected.

County Commissioner Tim Weigle has said before he believes 911 funding will begin to decline in the coming years to the point where they would need to explore going to a single answering center as a way to save money, but conceded such a move would be difficult.

“I think in the long run it would drive costs down” by saving on equipment and maintenance expenses, Weigle said afterwards.

Any restructuring of the 911 plan would likely need approval of the governing bodies of communities representing the majority of the population, which would be no easy task given how difficult it was in the first place to reach a consensus.

Emmons also pointed out the 911 accounts currently have a combined balance of $1.88 million, the highest in nearly six years. The other source of 911 funding is a monthly cell phone tax of 25 cents enacted by the state.