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Arkansas doesn't have any subways -- the subterranean trains that ride on electric rails, not the sandwich shops. So some residents may be less-than-familiar with the concept of the "third rail." That's the rail within those train systems that carries the high-voltage electricity that keeps the trains moving. And as anyone who's seen "The Taking of Pelham 123" (Walter Matthau-Robert Shaw version) can attest, coming into contact with the third rail isn't great for one's health.

Mostly when we hear talk of the third rail, it's about politics, i.e., issues considered so dangerous or damaging politically that most people who rely on votes to keep their influential positions stay clear of them. And while Arkansas doesn't have a subway, there are matters perceived as so electrified politically that prudence suggests avoiding them.

What’s the point?

“Efficiencies” in the 911 emergency call system are needed as funding gets tighter, but don’t be surprised if some turf wars break out.

It's not necessarily that facing the issues will result in an unwanted political shock to the system, such as the kind that trying to "reform" Social Security at the federal level might deliver. At the state and local levels, these are better described as issues for which the political payoff is too small to merit taking the political risks.

Oddly enough, where your emergency 9-1-1 call is answered has been that kind of issue in Arkansas.

Arkansas got serious about creating a 9-1-1 system in the 1980s. Depending on where one lived or operated a business, the development of the system meant a lot more than just a three-digit phone number for emergency calls. It also meant in some cases eliminating redundant street names and confused addressing systems. For a while, establishing a reliable system of emergency communication and dispatch required a bit of upheaval.

Part of that, too, were decisions about where those 9-1-1 phone calls would go. Local officials implementing the 9-1-1 system had to determine the location and staffing of public safety answering points.

It might have been easy to think that Arkansas has 75 counties, so naturally it should have 75 answering points. But the 9-1-1 system's creation was influenced as much by what already existed as by what it ought to look like. Local police departments, local sheriff's offices and even local college police departments were used to having their own dispatchers. Few law enforcement agency leaders were eager to give up control over what they viewed as an essential component of responding to the public.

So that's how Arkansas ended up with more than 135 answering points, including six in Washington County, five in Benton County, three in Sebastian County, four in Crawford County and eight in Pulaski County.

That worked just fine for many years. The 9-1-1 system was funded by fees associated with telephones -- that is, wired telephones in people's homes. That used to be a thing. Nowadays, however, vast swaths of people have given up home-based phones for the ubiquitous cell phone. The funding formula, however, hasn't changed significantly while technology and consumer habits have, dramatically.

As state lawmakers prepare to gather at the Capitol in Little Rock for a session of the General Assembly, county leaders say a priority should be finding a new source of funding for 9-1-1 systems. The technology of tracking where cell phone calls are coming from is costly, yet the old-fashioned funding formula has contributed to a decline in revenue.

In recent comments, though, state Sen. Jim Hendren of Gravette urged those concerned about the 9-1-1 system to not just come calling for more money. Hendren, who will be the president pro tem of the Senate, said efficiency has to be part of any new approach. That, he said, includes a reduction in the number of dispatch centers.

Such talk no doubt sends a shudder through some fiefdoms around the state.

But Hendren is right. For years, the state could essentially afford inefficiency because the 9-1-1 funding system covered the costs. Now, it's not. What better time than now, then, to suggest that the responsible path is to reduce inefficiency rather than pay a higher price to maintain the status quo?

That's not to say revamping the 9-1-1 will be easy. Resistance, we suspect, will come from all agencies now operating dispatch centers/answering points. Let the other guy close his, some will suggest.

Is demanding such efficiency a "third rail" kind of issue in Arkansas? It shouldn't be. But don't be surprised if this develops into a much bigger turf war than a lot of people might have anticipated.

Commentary on 01/09/2019

Print Headline: Calling for efficiency

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