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Give every resident a dial tone

Should every Marathon County resident be able to call 911 to get emergency help from the county sheriff’s department dispatch center?

We say yes. That’s why we think the county needs to develop a program to take care of people who have unreliable landline telephone service, while at the same time living in rural areas of the county that have spotty cell phone service.

One such person is an elderly woman in the town of Hamburg who loses her Frontier landline connection at least one day a month, but lives in a part of the county with terrible cell phone reception. This woman is elderly and on oxygen. If she were to suffer a medical emergency at the wrong time, she would be unable to summon help.

An elderly couple in the town of Cassel finds themselves in a similar predicament. Their landline telephone system hasn’t worked since mid-December and they patiently wait for the service to be restored by Frontier. Last Thursday, however, the wife in this couple did have a medical emergency and was rushed to the hospital by ambulance. The only reason the ambulance knew to show up, however, was because her daughter was at their home and was able to phone in a 911 call with her cell phone. Without the daughter’s call, this couple’s emergency could have turned tragic.

This is a problem we all should have seen coming. Back in 2011, Gov. Scott Walker signed a bipartisan bill to deregulate the Wisconsin telecommunications industry, relieving the telephone companies of a state mandate to provide service to all residences and to maintain a minimum service level. With the bill, the cell phone industry in Wisconsin blossomed, giving residents the option of discontinuing their landline service. The resulting situation is that landline telephone companies have fewer customers and perform less maintenance. Cell phone coverage, while better than in the past, still is not yet perfected. The end consequence is that some unlucky people who live in the wrong place, including seniors, now lack a reliable way to call an ambulance.

During the debate on telephone deregulation, the Wisconsin Citizens Utility Bureau said the bill would be a “takeaway of grandma’s phone.” This is essentially a prediction come true.

The problem becomes what to do about the situation. Looking to Madison or Washington, D.C. is futile. The federal and state governments have no appetite for imposing new regulations on telephone companies. That era has eclipsed.

This means the problem falls into the county’s lap. It is the one level of government that cares.

The county already is committed to enhancing public safety. It gave thousands of county residents new addresses over the last two years in order to insure a quick ambulance response time.

It should now be the county’s job to not just provide residents with a unique address, but a dial tone. Without both, 911 dispatchers can’t send an ambulance to the right place at the right time.

Our vision of a county program that would address the phone problem is one that would be targeted and temporary. We think it should serve those people who, unable to obtain either reliable landline or cell phone service, are at medical risk. We see the program as sunsetting within a few years as soon as satellite cellular telephones are more widely available and affordable.

We aren’t certain what exactly a county program should offer. Maybe a trained person able to advise families how to boost cell phone signals or communicate over a WiFi network. Maybe loaning out satellite phones to families. Possibly the Aging and Disability Resource Center could manage such a program. The center already offers a telephone program for low-income individuals.

We don’t know how many people suffer the twin problem of having both poor landline and cell phone coverage--and are at risk of not being able to make a lifesaving 911 call. Maybe there are hundreds. Or maybe just dozens.

We’d like to think, however, that the same county government that gave every resident a unique address for quick emergency dispatch can also help all those same residents be able to summon help over a phone when needed.