PETERSBURG, AK “(Telephone rings). 911. What is your emergency?”

While the phone is still ringing, a name and address appear on the computer screen behind the dispatcher. That is the enhanced part of E911.

The system, which provides first responders with location information for landline callers, was first implemented in 2005. According to Police Sergeant Heidi Agner, the city will need new software in January of 2012, when technical support for the existing program ends.

The city anticipated the cost of this replacement and imposed a $1.00 monthly surcharge on every telephone line, cell or landline, registered to a Petersburg address starting in January 2009. To date the city has collected $72,000 from the surcharge, but Sergeant Agner says that isn’t even close to the cost of replacing the system.

“At this point, we’re probably short even the most basic system at $130,000, about $50,000.”

Sergeant Agner hopes that the new technology, in addition to simply replacing the outdated system, would make it possible for emergency responders to locate cell phone callers.

“We would be catching up with what people think we already have, which is the capability of being able to find people on cell phones.”

The current system only provides cell phone callers’ names, and not in every case. However, Agner says even the current functions are an important emergency response asset.

“It’s not like every week something comes up, but it has saved a few lives, I believe because again a person was incoherent, but could call but couldn’t tell us where they were and we were able to get medical assistance to them. So, I guess the question is, what is one or two lives worth? But day to day there certainly is that where the officer, if he or her is in the station, has the opportunity to get at least a 2 minute head-start because they can see it on the screen.”

The enhanced software will not stop working on January 1st, but if the system malfunctions, it can’t be repaired. The ordinance creating the surcharge requires the city council to review the surcharge amount and determine whether it’s enough to cover the cost of the program on an annual basis.

When the council approved the E911 surcharge in October of 2008, some city councilors and voters expressed concerns about the cost. An employee with one local phone company said some customers complained about the surcharge immediately after the vote, but the company has not heard complaints in a while.

Alaska State law allows cities to charge up to $2.00 per telephone line to pay for an enhanced system. And some other Southeast towns do have higher surcharges. Juneau’s is $1.90 and Sitka’s is $1.48. Wrangell also has a surcharge of $1.00.