PSAPs and Dispatching: Are there savings in more consolidation?
(from Maine Townsman, March 2003)
by Michael L. Starn, Editor

       Last year in Maine, over 400,000 callers dialed 9-1-1 and their emergency calls were routed over the statewide E 9-1-1 network which includes 49 public safety answering points (PSAPs) scattered throughout the state.  Annual call volume ranged from 1,189 calls at the municipal PSAP at the Kennebunkport police department to 62,179 at the State Police PSAP in Gray.  This wide range of 9-1-1 calls handled by PSAPs has again raised the question, “Is Maine’s E 9-1-1 network as efficient and cost-effective as it could be?”

       Considering the wide disparity in calls handled by PSAPs, the quick response to the efficiency/cost question is “probably not”.  A more thoughtful response to the question, however, required some research and conversations with people involved with the state’s E 9-1-1 system.

Understanding E 9-1-1

       Confusion still exists over how the statewide E 9-1-1 is structured and works.   All emergency calls (9-1-1) in Maine, except in the Town of Lincoln (explained below), are answered first at one of the 49 public safety answering points (PSAPs).  The four state police division offices have a PSAP, five counties have PSAPs through their county sheriff’s department, 10 counties have a regional communications center (RCC) that serves as a PSAP, and 30 municipalities operate their own PSAP (most often through the municipal police department).  The Aroostook County sheriff’s department operates only as a dispatch center.

       From the PSAP, calls are either dispatched directly to the emergency service provider or transferred to a municipal or private dispatching center which then directs the call to the appropriate emergency service responder.

       This article looks at the municipal cost of the E 9-1-1 system and attempts to answer the question of whether greater consolidation would result in cost savings.  The municipal cost of handling emergency calls includes the municipal and county PSAPs and the separate municipal dispatching operations.   In Aroostook County, it also includes the contract with the State Police PSAP in Houlton.

Creating The E 9-1-1 System

       In 1987, a legislative committee issued its 9-1-1 Study Commission Report and in the subsequent legislative session a $3.2 million bond issue was authorized to implement a statewide E 9-1-1 system.  The bond issue was approved by Maine voters in November 1988, and since that time state and local officials have mulled over how to deliver the most efficient and cost-effective E 9-1-1 service.

       The primary difference between basic 9-1-1 and Enhanced 9-1-1 is that the caller’s address is automatically made available to the PSAP operator/dispatcher.  With the E 9-1-1 system, a physical address (e.g., 23 Water Street) is linked to the phone used to make the emergency call.  The chief advantages of the E 9-1-1 system are knowing exactly where the call is coming from and being able to keep that caller information even if the call is abruptly ended.

       The 1987 report concluded that a statewide E 9-1-1 system would be made up of 92 locations (i.e., PSAPs) equipped to answer emergency calls.  The 92 PSAPs reflected all the full-time state, county and municipal dispatching operations that existed at the time.

       The 1987 report also calculated the cost of creating this statewide system to be about $13 million, but only $3.2 million had been approved by voters.  Clearly, there wasn’t enough money to fully implement the system, especially if it was configured with 92 PSAPs. 

       Given the financial constraints, a new study was commissioned in 1992 to explore options and make recommendations about the implementation of a statewide E 9-1-1 system.

       The consultants who conducted the 1992 study developed cost estimates for a statewide E 9-1-1 network based on 2, 25, 50, and 92 PSAPs.  Of the four possible designs for the network, the 50 PSAP configuration was preferred by the consultants.  According to the consultants, the overall cost of a 50 PSAP network was the lowest of the four options.

       It should be noted that neither the 1987 report nor the 1992 study envisioned much of a role for separate municipal dispatching centers.  The 92 PSAP network and the 50 PSAP network were expected to dispatch over 90 percent of the 9-1-1 calls.

A Statewide System

       With Hancock County going live in February of 2003, the E 9-1-1 system in Maine is now statewide covering all 16 counties.  The Town of Lincoln is the only municipality to opt out of the E 9-1-1 system, continuing to use 7-digit phone numbers for emergency calls.

       Every county has at least one PSAP.  Aroostook County, where E 9-1-1 was activated in October of 2002, is unique from the rest of the counties in that it uses the State Police in Houlton for its PSAP.  In all of the other counties, the county sheriff’s office, or a separate regional communications center, operates a PSAP.  Only two counties – Waldo and Piscataquis – have one PSAP that serves as the single dispatcher for the entire county.  The remaining counties have either municipal PSAPs or at least one municipal dispatching operation that gets calls transferred to it from a PSAP.

       Many of the 30 municipal PSAPs serve just the host municipality, while a few have dispatching contracts with nearby communities. The cities of Lewiston, Auburn and Waterville operate PSAPs that are regional facilities. The Lewiston/Auburn 911 is a joint communications center that serves the two communities with a combined population of 58,893.  The City of Waterville’s municipal PSAP also serves the communities of Oakland and Winslow under contract.  The combined population for the three communities is 29,307.

       Some of the municipal dispatching centers have contracts for dispatching to surrounding communities.  Winthrop, for example, dispatches fire services for Readfield, Fayette, Vienna, Mt. Vernon, Wayne, Leeds and Wales, and police and fire for Monmouth.  With rural law enforcement handled mostly by the county sheriff’s office, most small community dispatching is done through the county PSAP.

       The four divisional offices of the State Police handle all 9-1-1 cell phone calls, provide backup PSAP support to the other PSAPs within their division area, and do a limited amount of dispatching to rural communities.  Cell phone calls pose a problem for the E 9-1-1 system because they have no physical address associated with them.  With the growing popularity of cell phones, they also are having a huge impact on the call volume counts within the E 9-1-1 system.  The highest call taker in 2002 was the State Police in Gray (62,179) and the third highest (the City of Portland was second) was the Augusta State Police with 29,561 calls.

       Cell phone calls (9-1-1) related to traffic accidents tend skew the call volume data.  A State Police PSAP may get 10-15 calls reporting the same traffic accident, all of which show up in the data.

County Cost Comparisons

       To be designated a public safety answering point (PSAP), the municipality, county or State Police must agree to provide 24-hour/7 days a week call answering and dispatching service.  A municipal dispatching center that has calls transferred to it by a PSAP must also provide 24/7 staffing.  This round-the-clock staffing generally requires a minimum of four full-time dispatchers.

       The TOWNSMAN, with the help of MMA’s State & Federal Relations staff, did some quick gathering of financial data on the PSAPs and dispatching operations in five counties — Androscoggin, Kennebec, Oxford, Cumberland and Waldo.  These counties were chosen because they have PSAP/dispatching configurations that have varying degrees of centralization and they were in operation for the entire year in 2002.

       The TOWNSMAN and SFR staff called all the PSAPs and municipal dispatching centers in the five aforementioned counties.  We asked for operating budgets and the staffing for the PSAP or dispatch center.  The table on page 11 shows a breakdown of the PSAPs and dispatch centers in each county with their operating costs, staff and the 2002 call volume amounts for PSAPs (9-1-1 only).

       Some words of caution about the data!   Municipal and county public safety departments have different ways of budgeting for dispatching.  Some budget the operation separately while others mix it with the overall public safety or police department budget.  When it was combined with the overall departmental budget, we asked for an estimate of the part of that budget which could be attributed to dispatching.  Fringe benefits are a variable in the data – some of the operating budgets include them while others do not.  If there was no segregated budget for dispatching, we asked for the salaries of the dispatchers and used that as the operating budget.

       Another important point to remember in reviewing the data and making comparisons is that municipal dispatchers, and some PSAP dispatchers, do more than just dispatch.  They may handle non-emergency calls, provide receptionist duties, give out burning permits, and perform various clerical functions.

       Non-emergency calls that end up being emergency calls tend to be greater in communities that did not have basic 9-1-1 service.  Over time, as people get more familiar with the statewide 9-1-1 system, there will be fewer of these calls handled directly by municipal dispatch centers.

Per Capita/Per Call Analyses

       The table on page 11 lists the five counties that MMA surveyed with PSAPs and municipal dispatching operations in each.  In addition to operating budgets, staff, and the number of 9-1-1 calls received in 2002 (PSAPs only), we have calculated a per capita cost and per call cost for each county.  The per capita takes the sum of all PSAPs and dispatch operating budgets in the county and divides it by the county population.  The per call amount is the total of the operating budgets divided by the total number of calls received in the entire county.

       Cumberland County received the most 9-1-1 calls (84,970) in the surveyed group; it also has the most PSAPs and dispatching centers – 13 PSAPs and 4 dispatching centers.  Moreover, it has the greatest total cost for handling emergency calls – over $6 million. The per capita cost was $23.10, while the per-call-handled cost was $72.21.

       The least expensive handling of emergency calls, according to our survey, is Kennebec County.  Kennebec’s 117,114 people are served by four PSAPs and one municipal dispatch center.  The per capita cost is $10.18, and the per call cost is $36.97.

       By contrast, the highest per call amount was $96.90 in Waldo County which handled only 5,887 emergency calls.  Waldo’s per capita cost ($15.74), however, was pretty much on par with the other counties.  One reason for the high per call amount compared to the normal per capita cost might be the fact that there was no basic 9-1-1 service in Waldo County before E 9-1-1 went live.  As people get more familiar with dialing 9-1-1 for emergencies, the call volume is certain to trend upward.

       The issue of staffing – a PSAP or dispatch center – is difficult because it is hard to predict the level of emergency calls.  Some of the low volume, call answering PSAPs can’t justify having staff that only handle the emergency calls, yet they want to be sure that they have enough staff to handle an onslaught of emergency calls, if they happen.  Since a PSAP or dispatch center requires 24-hour, 7 days a week staffing, the minimum number of dispatchers necessary to achieve this level of coverage would be the equivalent of 4 full-time employees (40 hours each) and some fill-in part-timers.

       Al Gervenack, director of the State Emergency Services Communications Bureau (ESCB), says there is no specific requirement from the state on a staffing level for PSAPs, but there is the stipulation that 90 percent of the calls must be answered within 10 seconds.  Staffing levels to achieve that standard are decided by the PSAP administrators.

       The cost of PSAP equipment is funded by the state and so is the training of PSAP operators.  The data base that links phone numbers to addresses is maintained under a contract, currently with Verizon, that the state ESCB manages.  The PSAP host pays for the building and operating costs.  PSAP hosts must also pay for dispatching equipment.

       When municipal dispatching is separated from the PSAP it is not regulated by the ESCB and the entire cost of the service is borne by the municipality.  In our phone calls, we found that communities handle dispatching in a variety of ways.  In Turner, for instance, the fire and rescue are dispatched out of an elderly couple’s home.  The town pays for the phone lines and equipment and the couple volunteer their time.  In some of the mill towns, the dispatch center is at the mill – town employees aren’t used (although they may be volunteer firefighters).  Several police departments switch around dispatching duties to officers who are at the police station.

Is Consolidation The Answer?

       The results of MMA’s quick survey of PSAPs and dispatching centers are somewhat of a mixed bag.  Cumberland County, with the most PSAPs and dispatch centers, certainly has some potential for consolidation.  However, the fully consolidated Waldo County PSAP is the most expensive based on number of calls handled.  The mostly-consolidated county of Oxford handles its 16,291 calls efficiently, but the entire county's per call cost is driven up by the two Rumford dispatch centers.  Androscoggin and Kennebec counties have a mixture of PSAPs and municipal dispatch centers and appear to be relatively cost-efficient.

       The towns of Falmouth, Freeport, Yarmouth, and Cumberland are doing a feasibility study for regionalizing their police services.  Falmouth Town Manager Doug Harris gathered data on the police departments in each of these towns.

       Harris’ study compares the aggregate PSAP/dispatching costs in the four towns to those at the regional Lewiston/Auburn 911 center.

       The population covered in the four towns is 33,629 compared to Lewiston’s and Auburn’s combined population of 58,893.  The combined PSAP budget of the four towns is $1,025,950 and the Lewiston/Auburn 991 center has a budget of $1,400,000. Per capita costs are $30.51 for the four towns compared to $23.77 for Lewiston-Auburn.

       A significant difference exists when comparing the per-call-handled cost.  The four towns combined handled 7,144 emergency calls whereas Lewiston/Auburn received and dispatched 24,427.  With over three times the number of calls, the Lewiston-Auburn 911 operation has a per call rate of $57.31 compared to $143.61 for the four towns.

       Financial pressures will force more consolidation.  Most of the county operated PSAPs are funded through the county tax, which is based on valuation.  A municipality that operates its own dispatching center gets no break on the county assessment.  In effect, they are getting a double whammy – they pay for their own dispatching and also pay for the county’s dispatching that they don’t use.  Even a community that has its own PSAP pays for that operation and the county’s PSAP too.

       The Knox County PSAP is a regional communications center funded by the users, not through the county tax.  Assessments are based on population and reflect both PSAP and dispatching operational costs.  The only municipal dispatching in Knox County is done by the Camden Police Department.  The Town of Camden pays $65,195 to the Knox County RCC.  According to the Knox County RCC director, the town saves $17,369 on its RCC assessment with the police department doing its own dispatching.

       The Penobscot  County RCC started off being funded by users, but then changed over to the county tax.  That switch caused Orono to close its dispatch operation about three or four years ago and now has Old Town seriously considering elimination of its PSAP/dispatching center.

       Comparing Maine’s E 9-1-1 system to other New England states does not provide much useful information.  Massachusetts has 267 PSAPs; Vermont only has nine and is trying to get down to four; Connecticut has 108 PSAPs; and New Hampshire and Rhode Island have a single PSAP.  Rhode Island has 76 local dispatch centers and New Hampshire, according to an article the TOWNSMAN published in October 1996, has 108 local dispatch centers.

       One observation that can be made from the state-to-state comparisions is that it doesn't make any sense to talk about PSAP consolidation in isolation of dispatch operations.  At the same time, our cost data suggests that complete dispatching consolidation is not necessarily the most cost-effective system.

       An important factor to consider in consolidating PSAPs or dispatch is the cost shifting that will likely occur.  As call volume increases, staffing will, at some point, have to increase to meet the state’s “90% of all 9-1-1 calls answered within 10 seconds” standard.  There is no hard and fast rule for dispatchers-to-calls handled.  Each call is different, and depending on where a PSAP is located the time of year may make a difference in the volume of  9-1-1 calls.

       Another factor to consider in discussing the issue of consolidating PSAPs is the state’s contract with Verizon.  With two and one-half years left on the contract, immediately consolidating PSAPs would probably yield minimal overall savings.  Because of the leased PSAP equipment and the data base software changes that would be necessitated by a consolidation, it would probably be better to wait until the contract is renegotiated or re-bid before eliminating PSAPs.

            That said, now is the time to begin analyzing your current PSAP or municipal dispatch setup and planning regional efforts.