By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Three years into an effort to provide better 911 service, Hill County is about to finish one more phase in the process - waiting.
On Friday, the state of Montana will conclude negotiations with the telecommunications company CenturyTel for a contract that would provide enhanced-911 service statewide. If the state can get a better price for Hill County than the county could on its own, the county will join the statewide effort.
Enhanced-911 allows emergency dispatchers to see the address associated with an incoming call, reducing response time. The state hopes that by negotiating on behalf of counties that don't have the service - rather than each county making its own deal - the cost to each county will be lower, County sanitarian and e911 committee chair Clay Vincent said.
The other advantage of statewide cooperation is that the e911 services across Montana would be linked, he said.
In 2001, Hill County began planning to provide the service, hoping to have it in place within two years. At that time, only a third of the homes in the county had street addresses. A Missoula company was hired to use the Global Positioning System to create a detailed map of the county, a map the county used to establish street names and address numbers. That took almost a year. The county then accepted bids from telecommunications companies for a countywide e911. Costs ranged from $150,000 to $280,000, Vincent said. At that point they expected to have the service by the end of 2004.
In May 2004, the state approached the Hill County committee with an offer to join a statewide effort that would allow each county to pay a starting cost as low as $90,000.
Start-up costs for enhanced-911 service go to creating a database of phone numbers and addresses and buying hardware for accessing the information.
Customers once paid 25 cents every month for regular 911 service, a service that has been available in Hill County for more than 12 years. When Montana began to considering e911, the state Legislature doubled the amount to 50 cents. The money is paid to the state, and then returned to each county based on population. Hill County has accrued more than $100,000 in 911 funds.
That money, as well as grant money available to the state, will help pay for the upgrade in Hill County, state 911 program manager Becky Berger said.
The state's goal is to have enhanced-911 service, including wireless 911 that traces cell phone calls, statewide by the end of 2005.
Hill County is well positioned to begin providing the service, and it hopes to be at the top of the list if it teams with the state, Vincent said.
"We told them we've put this off so we'd like to be first on the list," Vincent said.
The state acknowledges Hill County's effort. "Hill County has made incredible progress and put their team together to get a plan going," Berger said.
The work of the e911 committee has already had some effect on the county. The committee, along with the County Commission, chose street names and erected street signs throughout the county. It's a system the committee believes has already been beneficial, Vincent said.
Hill County Sheriff Greg Szudera said his deputies have had some trouble adapting to the new system, but that he believes that using it will ultimately benefit law enforcement, as well as citizens.
"It always is a problem. Someone will refer to the Smith place, but the Smith place may have been sold five times. I've got deputies who are 25 years old. They've never been to Jones' track up north. No one's been there. Then they hear it's right by the Smith place.
It's just like any change. We just have to adjust. We're still responding to Jones' ranch or Smith's farm," Szudera said.
"The largest advantage is going to be the new technology in the dispatching center with pinpoint accuracy. It speeds deputies, police officers and highway patrol getting to a location. Also, down the road, it will track cell phones," Szudera said.
But the Sheriff's Office is not finished adjusting to the new system.
"We haven't had anyone say it's helpful. We've had officers say it's hard to get used to," Szudera said.
"Learn it. Understand it," he tells them. "Once you get used to it, it's all mapped out in segments and with mileage."