First responders racking up minutes

Many cities are looking to reduce high first responder wireless phone bills.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, for example, spent $800,000 last year and $4.6 million during the past five years on wireless bills, but the department still does not require workers to pay for personal calls or even to show monthly bills. In 2001, the sheriff's department negotiated a new wireless phone contract with Verizon Communications that gives employees 570,000 pooled minutes each month, and the 1,800 employees with wireless phones have never used more than that, said sheriff spokesman Steve Whitmore. The department pays an average of $39 per phone every month. One problem officials had in reducing this bill was that many officers and workers spend a lot of time out of the office. In an emergency, they need to have immediate contact with other department officials. The Memphis, Tenn., Police Department also had problems with high wireless phone bills. In February, the department switched from using Verizon and Nextel Communications to only Nextel because officials liked the nationwide walkie-talkie feature, said inspector Jim Tusant. The solution, called Direct Connect, lets two people with Nextel phones talk at the push of a button. Each phone has a personal walkie-talkie number, so when Nextel users dial the number, they are immediately connected to another person. "There are providers out there that have walkie-talkie features at absolutely no cost," said Robert Thein, president of Effective Strategies, a technology consulting firm. Unlimited nationwide service for the Direct Connect feature is only $10 a month per phone, which is much cheaper than most monthly rates city officials are paying for wireless phones. Since switching to Nextel, department employees haven't run up big wireless phone bills, but they can still communicate with one another whenever necessary, Tusant said.

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