Consolidating Dispatch: Statewide 911 Rekindles Historic Debate
(from Maine Townsman, October 1996)
By Jo Josephson, Staff Writer

When neighboring New Hampshire implemented E-911, back in July 1995, it set up a single, "centralized" Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP), hiring additional employees to answer all 911 calls in the state. As designed, the single, state-run PSAP, located in Concord, answers and then transfers calls - between 800 and 1,800 a day - to 108 dispatch centers scattered throughout the state, some comprising more than one municipality. (There are reportedly four mutual aid fire dispatch centers covering some 60 towns).

New Hampshire's model, which is said to cost about $3.2 million a year, about the same as what is being projected in Maine, is very different from the decentralized model that is to go on line in Maine sometime in 1997.

Here in Maine, the task of answering E-911 calls is to be undertaken by some 60 PSAPs located throughout the state. There will be no state facility. Rather, Maine's design adds the task of answering the 911 calls to existing dispatch centers - some 60 - that meet state standards of population served, equipment, and facilities.

Not surprisingly, each model, has its share of critics as well as advocates.

Advocates of Maine's decentralized model say that in the long run technology is cheap and personnel is not. While their model will require some $6 million in startup equipment costs, little will be spent for additional personnel.

Advocates of the centralized model argue that their model avoids the turf battles that come with a decentralized model, unless they do what Massachusetts has done with its costly, decentralized model which equips every dispatch center that wants to be a PSAP. (There are currently 270 PSAPs in Massachusetts). Supporters of the centralized approach also argue that their model provides the greatest consistency of service.

Critics of the centralized model say the additional personnel necessitated by the newly created, state-run PSAP is too costly, while critics of the decentralized model say it is naive to think you can implement a (decentralized) system without additional personnel.

This article is not about the establishment of PSAPs in Maine or elsewhere. Rather, it is about what Maine's decentralized PSAP model has triggered; or as some would say, rekindled. E-911 has started again the historic and emotional debate about the other half of the equation - the dispatch facilities, their staff and their funding.

It's a purely local debate that the state says it is purposefully staying out of. Focusing instead on what it says it does best, the state will only be involved with setting of standards, selection of sites, procurement of equipment and the training of personnel. While some observers say you cannot talk about one without talking about the other, that it is naive to think you can do so, others say the state is wise to stay out of the dispatching debate, leaving the drive toward regionalization, or consolidation of local dispatch, to the local authorities.

As Steve Bunker, the state director of Emergency Services Communications Bureau within the Department of Public Safety, the agency handling the 911 Enhanced Program, recently told the TOWNSMAN, "Any move toward regionalization of dispatch must be locally driven."

And on that issue, Bunker told the TOWNSMAN that he was "pleasantly surprised" by the movement in that arena, noting the efforts currently underway in Penobscot, Sagadahoc, Lincoln and Androscoggin counties and elsewhere as towns attempt to get at what he calls the "ground truth" of their operations (volumes of calls, types of calls, staffing, physical plant, equipment and at the options for doing it the most economically in these tight times).

"It's something that would not have occurred 10 years ago," said Bunker, attributing the movement toward consolidation, not to the carrot of the PSAP, but rather to economics and the drive for improved services.

That said, this article looks briefly at some of the issues being raised in the historic debate, some of the advice being offered by those involved, and one of the models being proposed.

A County Model

Forty-nine people currently provide full-time dispatch in Penobscot County. They work for the Sheriffs Office and the communities of Bangor, Brewer, Hampden, Millinocket, Old Town and Orono. The annual cost of their eight dispatching operations (Bangor has two) is about $1.7 million a year, according to Douglas Kingsbury.

Kingsbury should know. He was hired seven months ago by the Penobscot County Commissioners to, among other things, come up with a dispatch model for the county that would cut costs significantly, so significantly that it would offset any potential local opposition to joining it.

The model Kingsbury has arrived at would cut costs in half to between $750,000 and $800,000 a year. It would reduce the number of dispatchers from 49 to 22 and the number of facilities from eight to one. Although he admits that technically it is possible to do dispatching with one facility, that might not be possible politically; therefore, he says a second, satellite facility is not unthinkable.

Communities with their own dispatch buying into his model would pay on the basis of population: $5 per capita for the service of a 24-hour dispatch. Bangor, for example, which currently spends $425,000 a year for its own dispatch services, would only pay $165,000 a year, or one third of what it currently spends on dispatch. As Kingsbury sees it, Bangor would save more than $250,000 without giving up any loss in quality of service.

In his proposed model, which is not unlike the model adopted by the Lincoln County Commissioners in January, 1996 and by a smattering of counties around the state, the yet to be named public safety communications center would be under the umbrella of the Penobscot County Commissioners.

It would not, however, be part of the Sheriff's Department (quelling those who rightfully argue that law enforcement dispatch is different from fire dispatch). Rather, it would be a separate agency of county government , with direct oversight by the communities buying into it.

Those communities buying into it would be entitled to representation on the agency's board of directors as well as on its advisory board. As spelled out in a draft set of bylaws, no single community would have excessive representation.

Those communities not buying into it - mainly those with police whose dispatch needs are currently met by the Sheriff's office - would be served by the facility, but would have no voice in its administration. Other communities not buying in - those retaining their own dispatch services - would continue on as before.

In his model, Kingsbury does not call for the dismantling of local dispatch equipment; rather, he would retain it to allow for local communication between departments and their staff and serve as a backup in case of a power outage.

Issues Raised by the Model

While the county model is pretty straightforward and the savings are significant, there are a number of issues yet to be resolved, the main one being "what do you do with all the other tasks that dispatch currently does?"

Because dispatch is a service that requires constant manning - 24 hours a day - and because the average number of dispatch calls is under one call an hour, actually .85 according to Kingsbury, (Bangor and the Sheriff record 2.5 calls an hour), most if not all dispatchers have non-dispatch duties as well, be it answering the switchboard, acting as receptionist, doing Brady checks, etc.

As Kingsbury sees it, this is the crux of the matter and why his model of reduced personnel can provide considerable cost saving without a loss in pure dispatch services. As he sees it, in this day of decreased budgets, it doesn't make sense for a highly skilled, well paid dispatcher to be doing lesser skilled work. Or put another way, should clerical staff be paid a dispatcher's salary?

"It is important to sort out the dispatcher's work, to look at isolating those things purely dispatch, Kingsbury told the TOWNSMAN.

That said, Kingsbury, says the issue of what to do with the lesser skilled tasks is a question for the municipalities. To assist them, he has developed a draft job description for a Clerical Assistant/Information Coordinator. As written, the purpose of the position would be to "provide clerical and technical assistance in supplying law enforcement information from regional, state and national databases and to provide clerical support as deemed appropriate in support of the agency's primary objectives."

Another issue raised is that dispatching fire is different from dispatching law enforcement. "True," says Kingsbury. That is why under his proposed model, the facility is not being housed in the sheriff's office; that is why dispatchers will specialize in police, fire and EMS, says Kingsbury.

Advice

Not all of the issues on the road toward consolidation can be resolved with new job descriptions and separate facilities and specialized training. When asked by the TOWNSMAN to offer some advice to those venturing down that road, Kingsbury offered the following:

Don't underestimate the strength of territorialism.

Public safety is an emotional issue because of the way the service is provided - with a sense of pride, if not identity. And a perceived loss of control over any aspect of that service instills numerous fears in those providing the service, observes Kingsbury.

If the service is not done well, "someone could get killed" is the greatest fear; another being loss of value to the community itself, not to mention perceived identity, says Kingsbury. So don't be surprised if the opposition takes on a "fight for your life" tenor, he adds.

That said, one should therefore not underestimate the strength of the status quo. At the same time, one should also not underestimate the strength of the silent majority, says Kingsbury. The most vocal, those who have the most to lose in their eyes, are usually in the minority, he says.

Consolidation need not be 100 percent.

Given the above, Kingsbury says one must be realistic and work especially hard not to have preconceived notions of their goal. Which is to say, when talking consolidation of existing dispatch into a single facility, one should not develop a model based on 100 percent participation of your major players.

As Kingsbury sees it, regionalization is whatever level of cooperation is appropriate to the task. "Success is not based on everyone being there; just all that are possible," says Kingsbury, adding that you have to understand that not everyone is going to participate.

Asked by the TOWNSMAN, what level of participation would be acceptable for success in Penobscot County, Kingsbury said it would be 50 percent of the target group in the county. (At the time this article was being researched, Kingsbury believed he was close to achieving that rate; saying "four would be ideal and we are very close").

Identify the different needs.

Every municipality has different needs and it is important to find out from the beginning what the conditions are for their participation. If you save me money? If you guarantee me my dispatch jobs? If you guarantee me a higher level of service? You have to get the municipalities to identify those conditions and put them in writing, says Kingsbury, adding that as you get closer to decision making these become critical bargaining points.

That means open dialogue, both individual and collective, is important from the outset, says Kingsbury, observing that while group meetings are where municipalities stake out their territories, it is the individual meetings where you break down the barriers. At no time should you allow difficult issues to become political issues; at no time should you shape your response to the needs of an individual municipality.

Involve the public.

One critical piece that is missing from the dialogue thus far, according to Kingsbury, has been input from the public: the taxpayers.

"They need to get the whole picture," he says. "Is it fair to ask taxpayers to pay for the more expensive choice (maintaining the status quo)?" Just what is it they want? What is it they think they are currently getting? How close is their perception to reality? How much of their perception is drawn from what they see on television?


Sidebar

Naming and Numbering Update

At last check, one-fifth of Maine's towns, about 97, comprising between 50 to 60 percent of Maine's population had workable addresses. Given the fact that it takes on an average of 20 to 22 months , and a minimum of 10 months to conduct the naming and numbering process, many towns will not be ready to fully participate in E-911 when it goes on line in late 1997, says Steve Bunker, the director of E 9-1-1.

While naming and numbering is not a state mandate, it is an act of responsible government in the name of public safety, says Bunker.

According to Bunker's office in late September, there were 123 towns that had not been heard from ; 127 towns that have requested a base map from the state; 107 towns queuing up for equipment to measure their roads and number their houses; and 29 towns that have address maps waiting to be verified.