Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Lee's 911 bill sparks opposition in today Charlotte Sun

Group: 50-cent fee is too small of a funding source

HB 355 Public Safety Telecommunicators
King Convicted
"I would have let you go but ..." jurors heard Michael King tell his victim, Denise Amber Lee, in a 911 call Denise secretly made that convinced them to convict him of her murder.

But it was another 911 call by an eyewitness who saw Denise struggling in the back seat of King's Camaro -- in which help was never sent -- that led her family and friends to start a foundation to correct flaws in the 911 system.

Today, Mark and Peggy Lee, parents of Denise's widower, Nathan Lee, both members of the Denise Amber Lee Foundation, plan on attending the state House health-care hearing in Tallahassee, where a bill promoting universal training for 911 call takers and dispatchers will be introduced. Peggy plans to speak at the hearing. On Thursday, Denise's father, Rick Goff, a longtime Charlotte County sheriff's sergeant, and Nathan plan on attending the hearing when the bill is heard in the Senate.

Denise was kidnapped from her North Port home in January 2008. After five 911 calls from family, witnesses and Denise herself regarding her whereabouts, no one could find the missing 21-year-old mother of two. Her remains were discovered near a wooded area along Toledo Blade Boulevard -- the same road eyewitness Jane Kowalski told a Charlotte County sheriff's 911 call taker she last saw King's Camaro. The call taker never sent deputies.

The nine-page House Bill 355 -- known as "Electronic 911" or E911 -- introduced by state Rep. Ken Roberson, R-Port Charlotte -- would require 911 call takers and dispatchers to take mandatory public safety telecommunications training and pass an examination administered by the state Department of Health with competency and proficiency testing.

Funding for the training would come from 50 cents that's already paid by telephone customers. Currently, the $50 million in the Public Safety Trust Fund generated from the counties' 911 charge on each telephone bill is used to pay for police training and equipment, Roberson said. Funding guidelines don't specify the money be used for 911 training.

The bill calls for universal training -- from 208 hours of voluntary training that's in place now to 232 mandatory hours -- with 20 additional hours of training for the biennial renewal requirement. The CCSO maintains it already exceeds voluntary training hours.

North Port City Commission Chair David Garofalo, a Lee Foundation board member, also plans to speak at the hearing today.

"There might be some opposition," Garofalo said Monday, alluding to a letter sent to the Association of Public Safety Communication Officials from Doug Christ, president of the Florida Chapter of National Emergency Number Association opposing the bill.

According to Christ's letter, NENA clearly "supports standardized training and certification of 911 call-taking personnel," but the 50-cent fee is simply too small of a funding source.

"There are no more rabbits we can pull out of the hat regarding how we can stretch the 911 fees," he wrote. "There has also been concern expressed regarding the apparent requirement of retraining telecommunicators who may have already gone through hundreds of hours of expensive training prior to the legislation taking effect."

However, state Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said she doesn't buy the arguments.

"They are not happy because they will have to pay overtime for the training," she said. "It's bogus. I've had enough of this -- safety can't wait.

"How many more times do we want to be on television shows like '20/20' showing the horrible mistakes that have been made in our 911 system? A North Port dispatcher left a man lying in the middle of the street for 18 hours because she didn't send help. She clearly didn't have the proper training," Detert said, referring to Brian Wood, who in December had crashed his truck in a remote area of North Port Estates. A teenager saw Wood and called 911, but could not remember the name of the street he was on. The dispatched failed to send help, and no police responded until a second 911 call was made the next evening.

Christ said Monday that NENA wants to "wait a year" and study the issue and how to fund it. He is supporting a substitution bill initiated in Pinellas County delaying implementation for a year.

"We'd like to see a task force established," Christ said. "We want a true statewide cost analysis. Our research and experience indicates that current 911 fees simply cannot absorb the cost of mandatory training. No one is giving us how much this will cost. I hear it could be $2 million just in Pinellas alone. Our goal is to ensure this becomes a successful piece of legislation as opposed to a costly 'feel good' bill."

Detert disagreed, saying there was no time to "rip apart" the bill.

"It's time to close the book on the bill," she said, adding she met Monday with lobbyists for the Police Chiefs Association, Sheriffs Association, Florida League of Cities and Florida Department of Law Enforcement regarding the bill.

"If they don't like it, they are going to have to get used to it and learn to like it," she said.

Garofalo said 911 funds should be spent for training telecommunication employees.

"Once the money is spent on training, it's up to the employee to pay for recertification," he said. "As far as making employees who have already had the training get retrained, it's not a bad idea. There have been some longtime operators who made mistakes that created liabilities for departments."

Nathan has said he wants to see positive changes made so his wife didn't die in vain. If the bill passes, it would take effect in July.

E-mail: eallen@sun-herald.com


North Port Community News Editor