Cost of 911 emergency service far outstrips revenues received

The surcharge on phone users only covers half of the 911 costs. Why? Look at the sheer volume of calls.

ems ambulance

An EMS ambulance crew dispatched by the 911 Call Center tends to a city resident.

Photo by:

A report submitted by the city auditor shows that Baltimore’s 911 Emergency Number System spent nearly double the amount of revenues it collected last year.

The city collected $3.77 million from a surcharge of 75 cents a month assessed on the bills of all cell, landline and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone users with Baltimore addresses.

But the 911 emergency service spent $6.87 million – mostly for salaries and wages, including $529,240 for overtime – between July 1, 2012 and June 30, 2013, according to an audit submitted to the Board of Estimates by city auditor Robert L. McCarty Jr.

Based on the authorized expenditure for the program, the city was required to take $3,106,563 from the general fund to make up for the deficiency in the 911 system, McCarty concluded.

Two years ago, the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology (MOIT) took charge of the 911 and Police Dispatch functions as part of a shift to a unified communications center to improve efficiency.

MOIT now runs a “one-stop” call center for both 911 emergency and 311 non-emergency calls from city residents.

Auditor Finds “Weaknesses”

McCarty faulted MOIT on several issues involving accounting. In its initial statement to the auditor, the agency omitted more than $907,000 in payroll expenditures because the costs were being charged to an old Police Department account. The charges were not fully transferred to MOIT until late in the fiscal year.

McCarty also criticized the agency for “commingling” allowable and unallowable charges in a special fund account as well as charging some 911 costs to the general fund.

This practice “complicates the preparation of the financial statement and the related reconciliation of allowable 911 costs to the city’s accounting records,” McCarthy wrote.

He called both problems “material weaknesses” in MOIT’s internal controls that could lead to a major misstatement of its financial status.

MOIT blamed its problems on deficiencies in the reports compiled by CityDynamics, the on-line city payroll system.

Scott L. Brillman, acting director of 911 Emergency Communications, told the Board of Estimates that the accounting issues will not be fully resolved until the upcoming 2015 budget.

More than 1 Million Calls a Year

The high cost of maintaining Baltimore’s 911 system is a reflection of the large number of emergency calls it handles.

Last year, 1.2 million calls were received from residents – an average of two for every man, woman and child. The volume is substantially higher than cities of similar size and includes a number of repeat callers who rely on city services to handle domestic disputes or chronic health problems.

The protocol for 911 crime calls is to dispatch a police officer to the caller’s address, although some 911 calls involving theft or burglary are now being taken by police in phone interviews.

Peter Bellmio, a consultant hired by Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts as part of his new strategic plan, said a typical patrol officer spends 52% of his time resolving 911 calls.

In recent testimony before the City Council, Bellmio said police have become the party of last resort when other city services fail – and the excessive number of 911 calls takes officers away from patrol and other crime fighting duties.

Costly Ambulance Runs

A medical 911 call similarly requires the Fire Department to dispatch an EMS (Emergency Medical Services) ambulance – or due to an ambulance shortage because of the volume of calls, a fire truck crewed by firefighters – to the caller’s address.

Providing 911 services have resulted in multimillion-dollar budget overruns at the Fire Department, according to Budget Director Andrew Kleine.

To try to pare down on expenses, the city entered into a $5 million contract with Digitech Computer Inc. to handle the EMS billing, ousting its former bill collector, Xerox’s Affiliated Computer Services (ACS).

Be sure to check our full comment policy before leaving a comment.

  • Susan A.

    If they have a new acting director, the city must have known there were issues in the past. Now its up to the new director to try and fix problems that arent his, and in government, thats never fast.
    Fire Department/EMS is quite expensive to run, and not much of a money maker anywhere. In a city where the majority of residents live below the poverty line overuse of EMS is just a symptom of larger social problems – lack of healthcare, lack of safe neighborhoods, lack of education, lack of healthy food, and lack of resources.

    • thatguysonheroin

      Where do people get this “city where the majority of residents live below the poverty line” crap!? The vast majority of the people in Baltimore city are solidly middle class, with 27% earning more than $70,000 a year (which is a higher percentage than those living in poverty…). Our median income rose 33% over the last ten years and far outpaced that of the counties. The rate of people living in poverty in Baltimore City has fluctuated between 20 and 25 percent for the last decade and is bolstered by a number of factors the city cannot control (College Students, Public house projects built in the 60’s-90’s which were found to be illegally clustering minorities in Thompson Vs HUD, etc).

      If you want to see where poverty is growing look no further than Baltimore County, where the poverty rate doubled in the last census and is poised for yet another banner decade. The result of Thompson Vs HUD is the push towards a regional approach to poverty, AKA section 8 vouchers instead of public housing, and a concentrated effort to move poor people and developments focused on poverty out of the city (moving up to opportunity I believe they call it). The the while the income in the county rose 22% (a good raise considering the economic challenges last decade), in real dollars it was a smaller raise than that in the city…

      So pointing the finger at poverty might not be the right approach here since the counties are taking on quite a bit of their own and don’t seem to be experiencing this issue.

      But of course I can’t blame the people of the Baltimore region for being ignorant of the positive economic changed in the city. If you’re only news sources are the crap we have in Baltimore it’s no wonder why you all feel the city is 90% poor and think us city residents have to shoot our way out of our front doors in the morning…

      • ushanellore

        No need to shoot your way out,
        just peer through the windows bars,
        and the keyholes
        then evaluate if you must CHOOSE your way out–
        it’s called living in a solidly middle class gilded cage
        bought with a solidly middle class wage.

        Just kidding. Thanks for the interesting comment.

        • Sherman Greene


      • bmorepanic

        Median income (2012) is about $40,000 per household in Baltimore City. In the rest of the state, it’s $72,000. That’s the point at which half the households earn more and half the households earn less. 23.4% live in poverty, the average for the state is 9.4%.

        We have about 414,000 adults of working age (18-65), but only about 272,000 jobs, some of which are held by non-residents. Our current unemployment rate is about 10%, but its 7% in the statistical area to which we belong. As in the federal unemployment, those rates do not include people who have given up looking for work.

        For a three person household, a family is entitled to some low income assistance (200% of poverty) when earning slightly more than $39,000. This is what $18.75 per hour looks like.

        This mythical household would pay about $7,000 in taxes, rent of about $1,500 to live in a two bedroom apartment where they don’t have to shoot their way out of the front door either, about $250 for utilities of all sorts and $600-$900 for food. Know what’s left for everything else? $312 using the low end of food costs. That’s to pay for transportation, insurance, medical, school items, clothes.

        Is this mythical family the poorest of the poor? Of course not, but they are the middle of our income distribution. 50% of our employed citizens earn less than that.

        Tax calculations are mine, but thanks to the US census bureau, the MD Department of Labor, IRS, and family budget planning sites for the rest of the information.

        • thatguysonheroin

          When you compare “median family income” in the city vs the counties you are comparing apples to oranges. The number of single parent households (and therefore single earners) in the city is more than twice that in the county. This is a cultural issue in a city which is 63% black and 73% of black children in this country being born outside of marriage. Good or bad,
          that’s the way it stand and it completely nullifies the comparison between “family” income between the city and basically any county in the state. A better comparison is the per-capita, but that gets skewed
          depending on the age distribution (people outside of working age throw that off tremendously).

          This is a good read, it explains the “falling median income” of America in generally the same terms (

          Poverty rate is still the best measurement of people hurting in any jurisdiction. In the city has been between 20-25% for the last two decades, while the poverty rate in Baltimore County was 6.5% in 2000 and is approximate 9% today… almost a 50% increase…

          I wasn’t making the point that poverty does not exist in the city, I’m making the point that poverty is tapped out in the city, and in recent years is in decline. All the while it’s growing substantially outside city boundaries and showing no signs of slowing.

      • River Mud

        Yeaaaaaahhhh. 51% of Baltimore City adults are unemployed (yes, including retirees, most of which have no pension or private retirement fund, and yes, that number also includes workers who work on a cash basis and do not fill out any tax forms), so hit me again with the “vast majority being solidly middle class.” That was funny stuff.

  • Sean Tully

    Ten to one that the city’s solution to this problem will be to raise taxes. It never fails.

  • bmorepanic

    MOIT should not be running 911 services. What the heck does IT know about operations of anything (not silicon based)?

    MOIT blaming a computer system for being unable to track costs is pretty funny actually. Are they blaming the payroll system that they picked out? Whoever thought that up should have just taken responsibility for the issue and fixed it.

    It sounds like MOIT added together 311 calls and 911 calls – maybe to sound more impressive. Maybe they should sharpen up their electrons and find out why calls aren’t answered. That would likely stop people from calling 311 so many times and then switching to 911. It would also be fun to see how many 911 call backs after the initial 911 reporting are because police still haven’t responded hours later.

  • GXWalsh

    I thought the 911 surcharge paid for the infrastructure of the system, not the whole price tag of each call. If that were so, it would be like all pre-911 era calls were unfunded. I (wrongly) assumed the price for each trip by police and EMS came out of the respective agency’s operating funds. I’m confused because all fire department calls are theoretically emergency calls but the 911 fee can’t be expected to cover all their costs…it’s not like they cruise for fires like the police have beat.

More of the Daily Drip »

Below the Fold

  • December 15, 2014

    •   “Ha ha, so not a surprise.” “Shocking…not!!” We get applause but also the occasional eye-roll these days for our accountability reporting – like last week’s piece about how tax cuts promised by the mayor as a selling point for Horseshoe Baltimore probably won’t happen, thanks to the casino’s lower-than-expected revenues. We get where the […]