Talk of merging 911 operations leaves some questions open

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 29, 2011

By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY — What exactly does 911 center consolidation mean?
How would it change 911 service for people living in Salisbury or Rowan County?
Over the past month, Salisbury and Rowan County officials have disagreed on whether a consolidated 911 center would be good for Rowan County.
The county answers all 911 calls, and it dispatches all except those for the Salisbury Police Department, which runs its own communications center.
The city of Kannapolis, which is split between Rowan and Cabarrus counties, dispatches its own fire and police calls and relies on the counties for emergency medical service.
In late September, County Manager Gary Page invited Salisbury staff to move into its new 911 telecommunications building on Old Concord Road. County commissioners voted in early October to include space for Salisbury dispatchers.
Salisbury City Manager Doug Paris agreed that the county should save room for the city, but he and city council members strongly resisted talk of merging the two centers.
City and county officials recently agreed to meet and work through concerns and issues with 911 service.
But those who deal directly with emergency communications know the details of what’s at stake.
Money matters
One of the county’s main arguments for consolidation is that the city would save about $400,000 per year in dispatcher salaries.
Salisbury also would no longer have to pay for its dispatch equipment, and the county could get more money from the state.
Richard Taylor, executive director of the N.C. 911 Board, said Rowan County is considered a primary PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point). It is the first public safety agency that answers 911 calls in the county.
Salisbury is considered a secondary PSAP, because it doesn’t directly receive 911 calls.
“We do not have a relationship with or fund secondary PSAPs,” Taylor said. “They’re paying for that PSAP 100 percent out of the taxpayer’s pocket.”
The only way the state gives funding for a 911 building, Taylor said, is through a consolidation grant.
Rob Robinson, county telecommunications director, said the state offers these grants because it wants to encourage counties and their municipalities to merge their 911 operations together.
“I came from a consolidated center,” Robinson said. “I worked in Stanly County for 10 years … and it works.”
As a secondary PSAP, Salisbury can’t directly receive 911 surcharge money. The county is allocated funding based on its needs, Robinson said, not including the city’s police dispatch.
If the two centers are consolidated under the county, he said, it will receive more funds to maintain and upgrade the additional equipment.
Level of service
Rory Collins, Salisbury Police chief, said he would prefer to keep a Salisbury 911 center that focuses on the city.
Collins said he does not believe the county would intentionally give a city call less consideration. But the county 911 center is already understaffed, he said, and its attention would be divided.
“If we remain our own entity, we will have the ability to provide a strong, specific focus on providing excellent customer service to the city of Salisbury,” he said.
Collins said there are two main disadvantages to the current system. First, there’s a delay when 911 calls are transferred to the Salisbury Police Department.
Second, calls that also need fire and medical response must then be transferred back to the county for dispatch. This process would be seamless in a consolidated center.
In Rowan County, Robinson said, all telecommunicators answer all 911 calls, but they each dispatch emergency personnel from a different area.
Two communicate with law enforcement, one with medical personnel and one with all fire departments. A shift supervisor monitors the activity in the center and handles any overflow calls that come in.
If the fire dispatcher is busy when a fire call comes in, any staff member can answer and dispatch that call, Robinson said. But it helps to have dedicated dispatchers for as many areas as possible.
He said he knows the office is understaffed, and the county is considering hiring two more telecommunicators. Currently, there are four to five working at a time.
In its evaluation of Rowan County, the Insurance Service Office says the county should have seven telecommunicators working around the clock to handle its call volume.
Two to three dispatchers work at the same time in the Salisbury communications office.
If the two centers consolidate, those positions would move to the county, and at least one would be dedicated to dispatching Salisbury police.
Local control
The city of Salisbury argues it can make decisions on a local level now that it couldn’t under a consolidated center.
For example, if the police chief decides to dispatch three cars to every domestic call instead of two, he could change that protocol immediately.
“If I feel like I need to make a change like that because of officer safety, that’s a change I need to make right now,” Collins said.
But if the centers were consolidated, the chief would no longer have the authority to make such a decision. He would be in the same position as Salisbury Fire Chief Bob Parnell, who must make a request through Robinson and wait for approval.
City officials have brought up concerns about the county’s fire dispatch service, but Parnell said he thinks the telecommunicators do just fine.
It’s those management decisions that can cause problems, he said. Right now, Salisbury is asking the county for a dedicated fire dispatcher and upgraded submersible radios for its front-line firefighters.
“If we can take care of some of our other pressing needs, then consolidation can be considered even more in depth,” Parnell said.
Robinson said he has been wanting to have separate dispatchers for county and city fire for years, and he hopes the county will increase staff so this can happen.
Collins also said he is concerned with maintaining the high standards needed for the police department’s accreditation, but he believes “this is an obstacle that could be overcome.”
In addition, the city of Salisbury initiated an effort several years ago to “create a culture of excellent customer service,” Collins said.
“While I am emphatic about the fact that folks with the county are professional and do a great job,” he said, “without being involved in that mandate and initiative, that is not necessarily going to be as high of a priority for them.”
The city has the choice of keeping its own 911 operation while moving it to the county’s new building. Co-locating could help the two entities work more closely together without sharing management or incoming calls.
The county then could apply for state 911 funds to build a back-up 911 center, which must be a certain distance away from the primary center and equipped to handle its full staff.
But Collins said this could cause city telecommunications employees, who currently work in the Salisbury Police Department building, to feel isolated.
“If it were up to me right now… I would proceed to relocate the dispatch center to a bigger room, making us eligible to be a backup PSAP, and pursue that route,” Collins said.
The future
Paris and Page have said they will form a study group to look at what Page called “potential areas for savings and service enhancement.”
The group, including Salisbury Mayor Susan Kluttz and Board of Commissioners Chairman Chad Mitchell, will meet in the next two months.
Robinson said it’s important that county and city officials sit down and work through their expectations of any consolidation or other changes.
“If consolidation happens, great. If it doesn’t happen, I understand that,” Robinson said. “I just want to save tax money and offer state funds for their equipment and try to improve service. Working together, we can do that.”
Collins said neither he nor the city of Salisbury has made a final decision, and he welcomes open discussion with the county.
“This is still under consideration,” Collins said. “But it is our obligation to make sure that we are making the right decision to make sure we provide the absolute best service to those who live here in the city.”
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.
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