By Paige Nash
After years’ worth of discussion, a resolution was unanimously approved by the Webster Parish E-911 Communications Board in May. The resolution states that all Webster Parish Fire Departments are now required to pay a $5,000 annual fee to continue dispatch services provided by the Webster Parish E-911 Communications.
Originally, when 911 was established in the parish in the early 90s, it was a very low-tech system that only required one operator. When that operator received an emergency call, they would then forward it to one of the two ambulance services available depending on the location of the caller. There was one located in the North of the parish, and one located in the South.
Funding was based on the number of houses in the parish with hardlines/house phones. As technology grew, everyone dumped hardlines and began using cell phones in the majority of homes, causing revenue to decrease.
A small amount of 911 funding now comes from cell phones depending on how a cellular phone is set up. A small percentage that is paid on a monthly bill goes to 911, but it depends on whether you have a Webster Parish number. If you do not have a Webster Parish number those 911 funds will go to the parish the number is set up in.
With a combination of the loss of hardlines and people leaving the parish, the Webster Parish 911 department has resorted to dipping into their reserves, but that money is in short supply. The equipment they are currently operating with is more than 15 years old and needs to be updated to meet requirements set by the Property Insurance Association of Louisiana (PIAL). They have moved from their location on Green Street to the basement of the courthouse and have cut staff back as much as they are allowed in an effort to save money.
“This money isn’t going to last forever, and revenue continues to drop,” said Webster Parish E-911 Communications Board Member Chris McGarity. “We don’t want to stop dispatching for them, but we have cut every corner we have. It’s not like this is a new idea. It is being done in other parishes”
In December of 2020 they attempted to pass a millage, but it failed. They do have plans to attempt another millage in November 2023. If the millage passes, the annual fee will be dissolved. If the millage does not pass the fee will be revisited annually, and the amount will be discussed and decided upon based on a needs assessment of current revenue.
The invoices just went out last month. Most fire departments are not very happy with this decision. Although there has been a lot of talk on the subject, only a couple have attended a 911 meeting to openly voice their feelings and concerns.
“This has been covered at Webster Parish meetings for the last two years, this isn’t anything new,” McGarity said. “We have sent letters to all the chairmans and all fire department chiefs. We have had two people show up. This is what we think we need to do, but if you have a realistic idea, then come let us know what you are thinking.”
Webster Parish 911 has made it clear after initially approving to charge the annual fee, that the departments will continue to be dispatched via radio by 911 and will not be denied any emergency request for assistance that places the lives of citizens or firefighters at risk. After receiving legal review, that may not be the case anymore. They have plans to still accept emergency calls on their behalf, but then forward that call to a number designated by the fire department as the system was originally designed to do.
Parish attorney Patrick Jackson advised the board that it should be all or nothing and that if a fire department chooses not to pay the annual fee, then Webster Parish 911 will no longer dispatch them at all. The consequences will be discussed in further detail at the upcoming meeting at the courthouse at 6 p.m. September 1.
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