NBC 10 I-Team: Representative takes 911 concerns to governor’s staff

A Rhode Island lawmaker is raising the alarm about a problem the NBC 10 I-Team has been investigating for months: a staffing shortage inside the state’s E-911 Center in Scituate, where every 911 call in the state is initially answered.

Staffers from Gov. Gina Raimondo’s office met with State Rep. Bob Lancia, a Republican who represents Cranston, on Wednesday to discuss his concerns about funding for Rhode Island’s 911 system, as well as staffing issues at the state’s E-911 center in Scituate.

“It’s not a matter of the money being well spent,” Lancia told NBC 10 following the meeting. “It’s a matter of you telling people the money is going for one thing, when it’s going for something else.”

The Department of Revenue told the NBC 10 I-Team that approximately $17 million was collected from 911 fees charged to taxpayers’ cell phone and landline bills in 2017. State budget figures show about $12 million of that was diverted to the state’s general fund, while $5 million was budgeted for Rhode Island’s E-911 center.

“I said, 'That can’t continue,'” Lancia said of the conversation. He said he had hoped to speak with Raimondo personally, but she did not attend the meeting.

The FCC has warned Rhode Island in writing multiple times to stop diverting 911 fees away from public safety, issuing similar warnings to seven other states that engage in the same practice.

Rhode Island diverts 68 percent of 911 fees to other uses, according to the FCC. The agency warned that continuing the practice will result in action, including the possible loss of federal public safety funds and grants.

Lancia said he asked Raimondo’s staffers how Rhode Island plans to respond to the FCC’s latest written warning, but “they did not answer the question.”

The meeting followed an NBC 10 investigation that found the E-911 center is down by at least 10 employees, according to insiders. At the same time, statistics the NBC 10 I-Team reviewed showed that more than 20,000 calls were placed on hold in 2017, with some callers waiting as long as 2 minutes 47 seconds.

Rhode Island State Police, who oversee the E-911 center, noted that the calls on hold accounted for 4.5 percent of the more than 460,000 total calls coming in and said staffing shortages are not the reason callers are placed on hold.

Josh Block, a spokesman for Raimondo, emailed the following statement to NBC 10:

“Rep. Lancia met with several members of the Governor’s senior staff today, who assured him that the 9-1-1 system is functioning safely and effectively. They discussed efforts to ensure that our public safety agencies have the resources they need, including the addition of several new staffers to 9-1-1 this week and the administration’s proposal to add two operators to 9-1-1 in the Governor’s FY19 budget.”

Acting E-911 Director Greg Scungio told the NBC 10 I-Team that plans to launch a text-to-911 system in 2017 were put on hold. Scungio said he’s requesting funding for three new employees to handle incoming text messages in the 2018/2019 budget.

The NBC 10 I-Team asked the governor’s office whether those three employees would be hired in addition to the two telecommunicators mentioned in the email. Block was unable to answer, saying instead that he would “pass the questions along.”

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