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PSAP Management: The Dreaded 'C' Word
Author: Barry Furey
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
It’s something that affects thousands of people every year, but no one wants to talk about it. We lose friends from it, and it impacts many families. A great deal of research has been done on the subject, yet it seems to be increasing rather than declining. I am talking about the word that brings fear to the hearts of telecommunicators, directors, first responders, and elected officials. That word is consolidation.
As we pass the halfway point of the second decade of the twenty-first century, the call to pool our collective resources has become louder than ever. Some states have taken the initiative to legislatively establish dates by which a reduction to a defined number of facilities must occur. Others have no such mandates, but provide economic or other incentives to agencies wishing to band together. The Communications Security, Reliability and Interoperability Council (CSRIC) Working Group 1A, on which I had the honor to serve, examined this issue extensively, and found that, “In the vast majority of cases, there are clear benefits to consolidation. 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.”
While making a decision that potentially saves money and improves operations seems like a no-brainer, not everyone is quick to jump on board. There are technical issues to work out such as disparate Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) and radio systems. However, as our infrastructure evolves, these become less problematic. An increasing number of departments operate on regional radio systems, and the advent of Next Generation 9-1-1 will allow an emergency call to be answered virtually anywhere. This mobility of communication will further be increased through systems such as FirstNet.
Staffing is obviously of great concern, as some employees may find themselves out of a job if consolidation results in staff reduction. Often, this can be dealt with through normal attrition, but if not, guidelines must be established to determine the appropriate criteria for retention. When bargaining units are involved, this process can become more complex, but I know of several situations were union shops were successfully merged. Part of this reduction may also impact administrative personnel, as in the end there will likely be a singular director or manager. Part of the staffing equation involves training and the creation of procedures – many of them modified or new – relating to how the center will operate.
The most difficult factor of all to address is that of political concerns. These can be deep seated, and may be influenced by jurisdictional disagreements having nothing to do with the actual consolidation process. One of the most prevailing principles in public safety is the desire for control. Unfortunately, this can lead to the creation of insulated cells that have little or no interaction, except during emergencies. For the purposes of consolidation, this individual control must be traded for influence.
User agencies have a right to expect quality services, and to have some voice as to how they are provided. However, this too can become a balancing act. Smaller agencies may have concerns about being overshadowed by the interest of the largest department. Fire departments will want to have their issues heard in what they may perceive to be a law-enforcement driven environment, since the majority of calls will be for police and sheriff services. EMS, too, will not want to be ignored, citing a large percentage of incidents that are truly emergencies. The sharing of data will also need to be addressed. What information should remain restricted to the primary response agency, and what information should be shared – and when – must also be identified.
There are any number of ways that oversight and management can be established. This process can be impacted by local or state regulations, or by the logistics of the operation. In any event, some form of memo of understanding or articles of incorporation will need to be drawn. These agreements must also account for revenue sources, with identification of who pays for what. This can obviously be adjusted over time, and must account for operational as well as capital expenditures. The start-up costs for the consolidation may not offer immediate savings to all users, and there is not a 100% guarantee that there will always be significant savings. However, when I see smaller PSAPs collecting hundreds of dollars per 9-1-1 call from state funds while larger PSAPs receive considerably less, it is a black and white example of why consolidations make sense.
Perhaps the final argument to be disposed of is that of “local telecommunicators know local conditions.” To some extent that may be. However, conditions change. People move. Subdivisions get built. I once managed a hometown employee who never drove on the interstates, which in our county were used as a major means of local travel. Obviously that was a significant gap in the dispatcher’s personal geographical knowledge. Still, proficiency in using our CAD system resulted in an excellent call taker all the same. It was this universally applicable skill, rather than an intimate acquaintance with each and every roadway, that enabled our dispatcher to perform. The ability to effectively utilize resources transcends all boundaries. Give me someone who can read a map, any day.
Consolidated centers work because they are the true definition of everyday interoperability. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen critical information passed between dispatchers sitting in the same room. When they are seated miles apart this cannot and does not happen.
Although I will openly admit some prejudice toward consolidated centers, there is one factor that everyone should consider: with our perpetual pandemic of telecommunicator shortages, banding together may be our best hope for survival. Since it may be legislatively required that we do so, everyone must keep an open mind to what appears to be the future of public safety communications.
With more than 45 years’ experience in public safety, including managing large consolidated dispatch centers in three states, Barry Furey now serves as a trainer and consultant for the 9-1-1 and public safety communications community. See www.barryfurey.com
Photo: The Guilford Metro 9-1-1 Center, the largest consolidated call center in the state of North Carolina. Guilford Dispatchers handle an average of 450,000 calls per year and dispatch two police departments, the County Sheriff’s Office, 25 city and county fire departments, county emergency management, Fire Marshall, and County EMS. (Photo by Christine Spoon; 9-1-1 Magazine file photo, 0711).