Mike Rigert

Mike Rigert

Story Vault

By Mike Rigert

If you set up a Google Alert for the terms “9-1-1” or “9-1-1 dispatch,” you’ll get a daily volley of Internet links to, in large part, the most recent news reports related to the emergency dispatch industry. Of those, a weighty portion of them will be news coverage surrounding the seemingly omnipresent industry issue of 9-1-1 operations consolidation.

There are online clippings about agencies considering consolidating, those in the process of consolidating, and for those who have undergone consolidation, an evaluation of the results. The trend toward consolidation—fueled by jurisdictions’ and agencies’ shrinking budgets and funding sources—is irrefutable.

In the face of tough economic times, jurisdictions have increasingly sought after ways to pool resources and eliminate redundancies. That has led agencies and government entities to consolidate comm. centers to cover multiple jurisdictions, counties, and regions.

“(Consolidation) has been a clear trend over the last 20 years. … The result has been greater economies of scale, more efficient use of resources, and improved interoperability,” stated the Communications Security, Reliability and Interoperability Council (CSRIC) Working Group 1A in its October 2010 final report to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC formed the CSRIC group to advise it on issues related to the dispatch center consolidation process.

But that doesn’t mean that everyone is onboard with the idea. The emergency communications needs of each agency and the jurisdictions it serves can differ greatly based on a variety of factors. Though most jurisdictions seek to give residents the highest level of 9-1-1 dispatch center services that are reasonably affordable, some view consolidation as ceding too much power to the contracting agency and have concerns about the quality of service to residents that a merger would bring about.

“The consolidation process poses numerous challenges, however, from operation, governance, funding, and technical perspectives,” CSRIC also states in its final report, Key Findings and Effective Practices for Public Safety Consolidation.

The following sections will look at both the advantages and disadvantages of consolidation and identify ways with which agencies and jurisdictions can analyze how consolidation might specifically benefit them rather than asking public safety officials and decision makers to simply take a leap of faith.

Consolidation models

Consolidation, traditionally defined, typically translates to smaller jurisdictions contracting their emergency dispatch needs out to a larger county or regional comm. center. But many other types of consolidation exist and are popular with agencies, such as co-location and centralization, said Shawn Messinger, a police consultant with Priority Dispatch Corp. (PDC).

Co-location involves separate agencies or agency divisions sharing a comm. center facility that within the structure’s interior are separate areas divided by a wall or by pod, with each having its own staff, CAD, protocols, etc.

“The flow of information increases, leading to greater efficiencies,” Messinger said. “It’s pretty common.”

Jay Dornseif, a fire consultant with PDC, who from his own experience with firefighting agencies in North Carolina, said co-location can also be a distinct advantage to agencies when natural disasters hit. Many co-located comm. centers in North Carolina serve a dual-purpose as emergency operations centers (EOCs) when natural disasters strike.

“An EOC can monitor the increase or decrease of events in the comm. center because they’re right there,” Dornseif said. “On a large event, 9-1-1 comm. centers can have a pod of dispatchers dedicated to funnel calls about that event.”

Similarly, centralization, sometimes referred to as backroom centralization, is when expensive communications systems and equipment are shared between two or more agencies at a single location to reduce costly capital redundancies.

Though dispatch center consolidation is not a new concept, it is one whose implementation was impeded until more recently due to a lack of requisite technology, Messinger said. But more recent advances in modern communications have made everything from backroom centralizations to full on regional consolidations possible.

“Twenty years ago, we didn’t have the technology to do that,” Messinger said. “It was still all copper wiring. The centralization model saves money and preserves the calltaking positions at each local Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP).”

With the ongoing technology potential of initiatives such as Next Generation 9-1-1, those in the industry are seeing that, “For better or for worse the consolidation doors have been opened, and opened wide,” Messinger said. “It’s now technologically feasible that an entire state could decide to consolidate all of its PSAPs into one statewide 9-1-1 call center.”

Costs versus benefits

Cities’ and counties’ increasing public safety costs juxtaposed against an era of slowing revenues has left many agencies and jurisdictions with no choice but to consider the viability of comm. center mergers.

In many states, legislation to modify existing tax revenue structures to be based on the number of cellphone lines instead of on the previous benchmark—the number of landlines—has failed, leaving agencies with funding shortages while cellphone 9-1-1 calls are on the increase.

In the U.S. alone, a staggering 240 million 9-1-1 calls are received by PSAPs annually, and this volume continues to increase, according to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). Moreover, it’s estimated that some 25 to 60 percent of all calls received by PSAPs come from wireless phones, according to the CSRIC report.

“The biggest driver of consolidations is more people making 9-1-1 calls by cellphone than by landline,” Dornseif said. “Now more than ever, a caller stands a better chance of being bounced between (nonconsolidated) centers during transfers than by a center that’s a one-stop-shop.”

That’s left jurisdictions scrambling to come up with budgets to cover staffing increases and technology upgrade costs to cover the spike in call volumes while still providing a high level of service to residents.

“The convergence of technical systems when combined with the escalating costs of maintaining those systems makes consolidation a serious consideration for decision makers,” the CSRIC report states.

Hence, all the Google Alerts in your inbox.

But at the same time, consolidation must be considered on a case-by-case basis; the cost savings and benefits may vary greatly based on each individual situation. A small municipality may be able to slash a full-time director position and one or two assistant directors by integrating with another comm. center, Messinger said.

“With so many agencies being tri-centers (that take medical, fire, and police calls) they typically can cover more calls with less funding,” he said. “If the agency is not yet a tri-center, there are almost no detriments to co-location, and in these situations it’s likely to continue because it makes sense.”

At the same time, a feasibility study may indicate that a good chunk of the potential financial savings of a merger might be offset by the necessity to hire supervisors for the new center, contract fees, or the lost investment of protocols and training that may not be used at the new consolidated center, Messinger said.

Dornseif said the only sure method for public safety officials and decision makers to know what type of fiscal savings and benefits a proposed consolidation will provide is to commission a comprehensive feasibility study by an independent contractor.

Potential benefits of consolidation might include budget savings based on commensurate reductions in staff, infrastructure, equipment, and other factors; improved and faster communications and coordination between agencies and agency partners; and access to more advanced emergency communications systems, technology, and standardized protocols that help eliminate mistakes. Messinger said consolidated centers are also characteristically answerable to a board of representatives comprised of participating agencies and jurisdictions that results in a heightened level of oversight and accountability.

On the flip side, there are also real and/or perceived disadvantages to consolidation. In some consolidation scenarios, displaced dispatchers may have long commutes, have to relocate, or lose their positions altogether, particularly in rural regions. Staff at a remote consolidated center may be less familiar with the unique geography of rural areas that local dispatchers could easily navigate for first responders.

Perhaps some of the most significant pushback to consolidation comes from decision makers’ sense of a loss of local control and a potential decrease in the quality of service residents might receive. Other considerations that hit too close to home may include staff concerned about how a proposed consolidation will affect their seniority and retirement benefits, Dornseif said.

Though most experience an increase in the quality of service as a result of consolidation, the reverse can also happen. But Messinger and Dornseif said those particulars should be fleshed out in a thorough feasibility study. Loss of local control, whether real or perceived, (despite the existence of an oversight committee of participating agencies) may be too much for some decision makers to accept.

“In the vast majority of cases, there are clear benefits to consolidation,” the CSRIC study states. “The sharing of resources allows for the elimination of duplicate costs, supports coordinated responses, provides greater interoperability, and ultimately leads to more effective and efficient service. Driving forces from political, economic, and service quality factors are increasingly demanding public safety officials consider consolidation with neighboring communities of interest.”

In the trenches

David Donovan, interim director of Scott Emergency Communication Center (SECC) in Davenport, Iowa, was a key figure in the center’s consolidation process from 2007–2011. A co-located consolidation, three PSAPs (Scott County Sheriff, Davenport Police and Fire, and Bettendorf Police and Fire) and a private nonprofit center (Medic EMS) constructed a new single facility to take all medical calls while also housing the agencies’ fire and police dispatchers at SECC.

Donovan said the consolidation put all SECC partners on a common CAD platform and a radio system that meets the new federal digital standard. It has also purged inconsistencies between jurisdictions, improved the level of customer service to residents, and fixed a taxing inequity for 9-1-1 services for rural areas of the county in which city residents were being double taxed.

“The benefits are more the capital expenses but there are some synergy and cost benefits from having all the jurisdictions on one platform and one radio system,” Donovan said.

John Ferraro is executive director of West Suburban Consolidated Dispatch Center (WSCDC) in River Forest, Ill., which dispatches medical, fire, and police for the villages of Elmwood Park, Oak Park, and River Forest. Prior to coming over to WSCDC, Ferraro was the deputy director of operations for DuPage Public Safety Communications (DU-COMM) in Glendale Heights, Ill. DU-COMM serves 39 agencies in DuPage County, averages 30,000 9-1-1 calls per month, and is one of the largest consolidated 9-1-1 centers in Illinois.

“There’s operational, and obviously, economic benefits to consolidation,” Ferraro said. They include operational continuity from town to town, information sharing, and coordinating resource availability. Similarly, cost savings can be substantial.

“If you take what it costs to run a 9-1-1 center and take that pie and divide it by 4 to 6, or even 39 pieces, it will obviously benefit the active members,” Ferraro said. “And anytime you consider adding another agency or moving away from being a single center, there are generally significant savings that go along with it. It’s less equipment and less money.”

WSCDC, which has 25 dispatchers and serves a population of 80,000, formed in 2002 between Oak Park and River Forest, and added Elmwood Park in 2004. Recently, the nearby city of Park Ridge has decided to become a member of WSCDC for its 9-1-1 call answering and police dispatching.

SECC, which employs 43 dispatchers and six shift supervisors and took 218,000 calls for service in 2013, is currently having dispatchers cross-trained on medical, fire, and police calls, an advantage that enhances flexibility and eases scheduling challenges.

Donovan said consolidation has also brought less concrete but equally important gains to emergency communications in Scott County. One is that it has created a forum of dialogue and interoperability between agencies and jurisdictions that was previously nonexistent.

“It’s a place to start those conversations, and it brings everyone to the table at once,” Donovan said. “If there are issues, it pulls us together.”

Internally, perhaps the most appreciated aspect of the SECC partnership is that not a single calltaker/dispatcher from any of the four comm. centers was laid off. One of the provisions of the center’s intergovernmental agreement was that every dispatcher would have a place at the new SECC, Donovan said. The provision was possible when the feasibility study found that one of the four centers was significantly understaffed for the call volume it received.

Ferraro said the human element of losing dispatchers can be a drawback to consolidation but that at WSCDC and DU-COMM, the standard procedure is to give laid-off dispatchers the first crack at new consolidated center positions pending they pass a standardized test.

“As a director, I’ve seen consolidation work,” Ferraro said. “I’m for it.”

Donovan said the greatest challenge during SECC’s consolidation process has simply been the cumulative amount of changes that public safety staff and officials have had to absorb, he said.

“It’s the whole learning curve,” Donovan said. “To this day we’re still adapting and trying to become more proficient. Initially there were some technology issues that haunted us for the first 18 to 20 months. Now we’re asking ourselves, ‘How do we become better? How do we benchmark ourselves?’ We’re putting in place performance goals, taking it to the next level, and seeing the fruits of our labors in terms of the performance that we’re giving the community.”

That’s what the CSRIC says

But just because agencies and jurisdictions are interested in giving consolidation a look doesn’t mean it’s smooth sailing once a proposal is green-lit.

That’s why the CSRIC 1A Working Group, in its final report, also identified some key findings and effective practices of public safety officials and decision makers.

“The consolidation process often poses numerous challenges from operational, governance, funding, and technical perspectives,” the report states. “A key issue is how to assist agencies in the transition from system operator to user.”

As a result of the group’s research, in consultation with case study participants with successful consolidations, the CSRIC 1A Working Group singled out six phases that stakeholders encounter during a typical process:

•Identification of an effective champion—Successful consolidations usually have one trait in common, a well-respected champion to lead and spearhead the process from beginning to end. Respondents said consolidation represents a major culture change and is often threatening to participating agencies long accustomed to having complete control of their services.

Interest building—The process of developing interest in consolidation among decision makers and stakeholders is often met with skepticism and rejection. The champion must meet with the affected parties and answer their initial questions with enough clarity to address those concerns and doubts in order to build a body of trust and secure “agency buy in.” If enough interest exists, the process moves to the next phase of conducting a feasibility study.

•Feasibility study—A comprehensive study that (a) benchmarks current 9-1-1 and dispatch services by examining a wide variety of issues. These issues include staffing, call processing and dispatching, budget, technology, political environment, and facilities. (b) Determines if consolidation makes sense from a service level and political, technological, and financial perspectives. And (c) makes recommendations for consolidation models, governance, funding, staffing, technology, and facilities.

•Planning phase—Decisions regarding participation, funding, formulas, organizational structure, governance model, human resources issues, and facility and technology needs are made in this phase in addition to planning for procurements.

•Implementation/transition phase—Technology procurement, installation and training, facility construction or renovations, and procurement of furnishings all occur in this phase.

•Post-consolidation phase—This is the time immediately after activation of the new service. Service and technology issues are common during this phase. These issues are usually indicative of the success of the consolidation. Keeping these issues in proper perspective is vital.

For further reading, the CSRIC 1A Working Group’s final report also outlined 16 findings of effective practices to aid agencies and jurisdictions as they circumnavigate the complicated waters of consolidation.

The consolidation question

In summary, the trend of dispatch center consolidation isn’t going anywhere. Agencies and jurisdictions continue to grapple with rising costs of staffing, updating new technologies, and related expenses even as 9-1-1 comm. centers continue to experience shrinking budgets and problematic revenue sources. And as the industry continues to move toward Next Generation 9-1-1, the costs associated with realizing NG9-1-1 may accelerate the trend.

Obviously, a one-size-fits-all approach will not help decision makers and stakeholders; a feasibility study is instrumental in fleshing out the specifics of a consolidation proposal.

In fact, some would argue that a feasibility study may be worth its weight in gold if there is a least a modicum of interest from public safety officials—armed with information about how to approach and successfully navigating the consolidation process—in looking at the numbers.

“The consolidation trend is continuing,” Messinger said. “In fact, with looming budget shortfalls across the country, I think it is speeding up. If you are a city council or county government and looking at expenditures, I think they see consolidation as an option. As a general rule, if they’re not thinking about the political ramifications or similar concerns, it would be beneficial for 9-1-1 comm. centers to look at centralization, co-location, and consolidation in order to gain the highest level of service at the lowest cost to the taxpayer. But that’s with a perfect understanding of what consolidation entails.”