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Identifying Value in PSAP Consolidations

Author: Marc W. Bono, ENP, PMP

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2010-03-06
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One, perhaps indirect way to perceive trends in the public safety industry is to count the frequency of certain types of RFPs that cross consultants’ desks. So it is noteworthy to those of us in the consulting business that, although subjects such as NG 9-1-1 might be expected to generate the majority of requests for help, in fact, we find we are receiving even more requests to support either studying the feasibility of PSAP consolidation or for planning and implementing such consolidations. Clearly the cause for this most recent spike in consolidation planning is the pressure being placed on municipal budgets by our current economy. As state and local governments continue the struggle with shrinking revenues and expanding needs, governmental managers continually look for ways to achieve improvements in the quality of services being delivered while reducing the cost of performance.

Public safety authorities then also increasingly face the difficult task of balancing optimized performance in mission critical, life saving applications with sound fiscal management. Underlying the reliance on consolidations to reduce costs is the general acceptance of the mathematical truths involved in economies of scale as they apply to either staffing or purchasing capital equipment.

Add to that the advances in technology that enable more options and you find that agencies have good reason to at least re-evaluate their operational model. An overabundance of communications and/or human resources in a PSAP provides only illusory, not real value, and, in the face of restricted budgets, can divert precious, limited resources from other critical needs. Thus it is imperative that PSAPs be provided with sufficient, but not wasted resources to accomplish their critical missions.

In our experience the most common drivers for consolidation projects fall into the following scenarios:

  • An insufficiency of available capital funds blocks the necessary upgrade or replacement or obsolete systems.
  • State level agencies or legislatures are mandating the consolidation of local, municipal PSAPs to at least county-level or larger regional models with the goal of reducing the costs of state funded infrastructure.
  • Local budgets can no longer support operations.

But while consolidation has been proven to save money, and, more importantly work well, many consolidation efforts face great resistance and some fail. These consolidation efforts fail to complete or revert back to prior, more localized operations, even though among the thousands of PSAPs in the country there are a great many county-wide, or multi-county or even state-wide PSAP models that successfully serve the public. That suggests that it is not larger size of the PSAP that is at fault, but rather the manner by which several small, local PSAPs coalesce into a larger one. The difficulties, then, lie in the transformation process—and the fact that, in these cases, expectations for improvements and savings are not met.

It could be that the problems that are encountered most often stem from the way the task is initially conceived: too great a focus is placed on hard dollar savings. Small PSAPs are known to often have very light call loads. The low ratios of calls per dispatcher are what serve as the red flags that suggest a consolidation, but the common pitfall that occurs is that the resulting plan places insufficient attention on two important considerations. First many of the non-9-1-1 activities performed by 9-1-1 personnel in the local PSAP are under estimated. Too frequently, the general costs of these functions are considered “soft” dollars, and are therefore dismissed. Second, the costs of support staff for the new model are not fully considered. Thus, not only do operations suffer, but the expected cost savings do not fully materialize.

Such costs must be understood and taken into the equation at their full value. The only way to secure such an understanding is to first fully identify, enumerate, and cost out all the operational duties currently performed in the PSAP and then to determine how 9-1-1 operations are supported in terms of technology, supervision and training, and administration—for it is often the case that the diverse, local PSAPs are already achieving cost efficiencies by sharing in local resources or by providing added functions. Support provided by such resource sharing arrangements that occur at the local PSAPs will then need to be somehow replaced in a consolidated model.


Understanding the Landscape

The dispatcher in a one or two person center is a jack of all trades. He or she may be involved in controlling building access, providing clerical support in non busy times, handling a myriad of administrative tasks and calls, etc. Take for example the case of a university PSAP we came across in one consolidation study: They handled monitoring of campus video surveillance, building access control across the campus, dispatched night escort service for students returning late to their dorms, etc., as well as 9-1-1 dispatching, which was minimal. While they fulfilled the dispatch function, their job duties frankly rendered the title of “dispatcher” a misnomer. When it came down to cases in deciding if they should participate in the consolidation, the project team determined the school would achieve no staff savings as they would have to keep the same number of people on duty anyway. In fact their participation in the consolidation would have added cost and degraded service levels. The project team agreed to let the campus operation stay put, focusing on the larger issue of optimization of general performance, and not specifically the maximization of call taker efficiency ratios.

Pulling people out of a small local PSAP presents challenges also—not insurmountable, but significant—for those left behind. Who will pick up the ancillary duties call takers performed in quiet times, and at what cost? While such work can be performed by a competent person in a lesser pay grade and without the specialize investment in training a dispatcher, the “soft” dollar cost of those functions will ultimately be spent in cold hard cash, so the cost of replacement for non-dispatch duties must be figured into the equation.

On the other hand, the support that has been provided to the local, non-consolidated PSAP needs to be figured into the new, consolidated model. When dispatching is organic to the local agency, then often supervision, training, technical support, administrative support, etc. is provided by the larger entity, and, equally often, these costs of supporting the PSAP is are not even allocated. A larger PSAP will need dedicated supervisors, possibly technical specialists and other dedicated resources. These functions can be better provided in a large, consolidated PSAP, but will need to be accounted for as to source, structure, work space, and naturally, budget.


A Tool to Help

Acquiring and organizing all of this information into a consolidation plan can prove a daunting task. We recommend borrowing a tool from the systems development world: the traceability matrix. Create a matrix that lists every duty and then who performs it, about how many hours per week or month its performance requires, and, whether it is a repeatable activity, with how many times per some period, or if it is of an on-demand nature requiring a constant presence. Then, in concert with the team involved in planning the consolidation and the local management, determine and document how each task will be accomplished in the new model. By next working up frequency of action and level of effort, one can develop a bottom up budget and get a true estimate of costs.

At the same time, as a parallel effort, supervisory responsibility for tasks should be delineated. Another closely linked consideration should be standards, metrics and the quality assurance/quality control methods, especially how gaps in performance in supporting fire or police or EMS responders will be addressed. Before going into the consolidation, it also is critical that participants fully understand the disparities in operations between the involved PSAPs that must be reconciled. Different concerns on the part of participants will inevitably lead to different agendas. These must all be reconciled as much as possible to ensure the success of the consolidation. Thus you can build a management plan based on this tool and with it the governance plan.

There are many other issues a consolidation project must resolve—perhaps subject for a future article—but an essential early step in planning is to get a clear, complete grasp of the potential value and benefits of your specific consolidation based on a methodical analysis of the all the many activities occurring in even the smallest PSAP.


Investing In Consolidations to Improve Service

It is worth a quick review of what public safety agencies stand to gain by consolidating PSAPs, even if this territory is familiar to many readers; yet here we will approach these benefits from an operational point of view as well as a financial one. The aggregation of a larger staff provides cost efficiencies that are undeniable, at least from the view of an Erlang table. Also purchasing power and leverage over vendors increases. And there is the reduction in un-necessarily redundant technology platforms for multiple small operations. But we have found that when operational improvements are the driving force of a consolidation, it has a better chance of success.

The opportunities presented by consolidating PSAPs transcend staff reduction and savings on equipment. Any money saved could and should be spent differently to greater effect:

  • A larger center would need and could support a full time QA/training supervisor who could improve the effectiveness of dispatchers.
  • An investment could be made in a dedicated technical support person—as opposed to one shared with other departments, providing faster restoral of service.
  • A larger PSAP presents the opportunity to diversify job classifications and levels and thus create a true career path as a motivator for the staff.
  • An aggregation of 9-1-1/dispatch operations enables closer coordination and improved interoperability, especially beneficial in the event of a major incident.
  • A larger operation provides budget and a financial model that supports more robust systems that can bring higher feature/functionality than might otherwise be available to several small PSAPs.
  • Consolidation into a new building offers a chance for a wide range of facility related improvements, from more storage to better kitchens, to less cramped work space, to improved equipment rooms for supporting systems.

Thus there are significant qualitative, operationally-oriented benefits that can emerge from a consolidation, in addition to the financial ones.

Marc W. Bono is with RCC Consultants, Inc. He has been involved in 9-1-1 consulting for eleven years. RCC has been in the Public Safety consulting business since 1983.



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