An Ounce of Prevention
New York state Assemblyman David Koon is on a mission: He wants to see wireless enhanced 911 services in place statewide, and has drafted legislation to speed the process. And he has vowed to stay on Gov. George Pataki's case until he signs the legislation into law.
Koon is no standard-issue politico, however, and his cause is not a run-of-the-mill campaign promise.
Koon's journey began in November 1993. After finishing her shift at the psychology clinic where she worked, Koon's daughter, Jennifer — who was a sophomore psych major at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y. — decided to stop for a bagel at a nearby shopping center. As she was leaving the shop at about 11:30 a.m., 18-year-old Jennifer was abducted.
“It was totally random. Her assailant said at his trial that he had gone to the shopping center to do a purse-snatching,” Koon said. He added that he's not completely certain why Jennifer was abducted, but theorizes that her abductor made a spur-of-the-moment decision to go after her car.
After being held captive for a short time, Jennifer was murdered — but not before she managed to dial 911 on her wireless phone. But it did Jennifer little good because her handset did not contain location-enabled technology. Koon said the 911 dispatcher and her supervisor couldn't even determine which cell tower was transmitting Jennifer's signal.
“All they could do was listen to the last twenty minutes of my daughter's life,” he said.
Koon carries a copy of the tape from Jennifer's 911 call in his briefcase at all times. He said it serves partly as a closure device, but more importantly, it motivates him in his quest.
Koon's work to advance E911 in New York actually began more modestly. After suffering through the trial — Jennifer's assailant was convicted and is now incarcerated at a New York state penitentiary, serving a sentence of 37-1/2 years-to-life — Koon approached a city councilman about getting security cameras installed in the parking lot of the shopping center where Jennifer was abducted.
“I told him that we use security cameras to protect the merchandise in the stores, but we do nothing to protect the people buying the merchandise,” Koon said.
The plea fell on deaf ears. In fact, the councilman never responded, according to Koon. So believing he could do a better job (“At least I would get back to people, he said), Koon decided to run for the councilman's seat. He lost by about 600 votes, a relatively close margin considering no one had contested the seat in 14 years. Buoyed by the experience, Koon ran for the state assembly in 1996 in a special election. He won.
Finding himself in a position to influence change, Koon went right to work on E911. New York state wireless subscribers have paid a 70-cent E911 surcharge each month since 1991, but the money hasn't gone to expand the reach of the service, according to Koon. Instead, the money is used to support general public safety initiatives, something he doesn't quite understand given how the surcharge is identified on wireless bills.
“It says ‘E911 surcharge’ on my bill, and on everybody's bill in the state of New York,” Koon said. “This is what I've been screaming about for seven years.”
Actually, Koon has been doing more than screaming. He has been drafting legislation to divert surcharge monies from the general treasury into E911 enhancement programs. Occasionally the legislation makes it to Gov. Pataki's desk, but is vetoed.
“I say the money is meant to save lives; he says it's meant for public safety,” Koon said, with more than a little frustration in his voice. (Calls to Pataki's office were not returned.)
Undeterred, Koon is at it again. He pushed another bill through the state assembly in February that now rests in the senate. This legislation would allow the state to issue up to $300 million in bonds through an already established “dormitory” authority to fund E911 expansion. The authority was established years ago to fund the building of student dormitories at colleges and universities throughout the state. “That's the advantage — we don't have to create another bonding authority,” Koon said.
Another advantage is that the state has an available and ongoing source of money to retire the bonds: the E911 surcharge. U.S. Sen. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., recently praised Koon's bill during a Senate Communications Subcommittee hearing on E911. Eshoo, along with Sens. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and House Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., launched the Congressional E911 Caucus in March 2003. Among its goals is the ubiquitous deployment of E911 systems nationwide and the identification of appropriate funding sources.
“It's disappointing that so much time has passed without widespread use of E911,” Eshoo said. “We've been talking a long time about this, and it's about time we bring this life-saving technology nationwide. Koon has presented a model all of us should take a look at.”
Koon knows that he still faces an uphill battle with Gov. Pataki. Recently he cornered the governor at an event, and came away dismayed as ever. “I told him we needed to spend the E911 surcharge on E911, and he told me that we weren't going to see eye-to-eye on this and we never would,” Koon recalled. “I thought to myself, ‘You son of a bitch. I'm going to be your worst enemy in your next campaign.’”
Koon has since calmed down a bit. As a result, he has decided to approach the challenge in the politician's time-honored manner: by offering Gov. Pataki a deal. Koon figures that about $300 million and two years time would be needed to upgrade every public safety answering point in the state. About $84 million will be collected from the E911 surcharge this year, and with cell phone use in the state increasing by 10% to 15% each year, that figure should rise proportionally in subsequent years. Koon said he has gone over the state's operating budget for this year “with a fine-tooth comb” and discovered that Gov. Pataki has only budgeted about $44 million against the surcharge.
“All we're doing is asking for the other $40 million,”Koon said.
Another tragedy that occurred in January 2003 might help him get it. Four teenagers drowned when their rowboat capsized off City Island in the Bronx, N.Y. Like Jennifer Koon, one of the boys managed to make a 911 call using a wireless handset. According to published reports, the boys told a dispatcher they were on Long Island Sound and their rowboat was taking on water. But the dispatcher could not determine their location, and a supervisor allegedly decided there wasn't enough specific information to notify rescue authorities. This caused a 14-hour delay in the search for the boys — and a media firestorm.
“All hell broke loose,” Koon recalled. “I told the press those deaths are on the governor's shoulders. That made headlines and got the governor's attention.”
It remains to be seen whether that turns out to be a good thing — it's entirely possible that an already contentious relationship might turn venomous, which could work against Gov. Pataki finally signing a Koon-sponsored bill into law. Koon said he isn't worried.
“I don't care if Pataki is the enemy; I'm on the right side of the issue,” Koon said. “And if he vetoes the bill this time, that would kill him in this state. People would be up in arms. There has been enough publicity on this now.”
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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.
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