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Five Principles for Successful 9-1-1 Consolidations
Author: By John F. Walker and Lee R. Evett, Willdan
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
Many American communities are facing unprecedented revenue losses and bleak economic futures. Communities across the country are searching for ways to save money while preserving and protecting services critical to the community— particularly the services provided by first responders.
In the public safety arena, one option that is frequently discussed is the consolidation of 9-1-1 services. For the past 40 years, the consolidation of public safety 9-1-1 dispatching centers has been an ongoing point of contention, with the discussions punctuated by debate, personal diatribes, and, ultimately, failure. Many communities that have consolidated 9-1-1 communications or operational responsibilities (or both) have failed to establish and maintain effective centers.
One method of consolidation has been at the county level. Many county sheriff agencies have contracted to provide policing services and 9-1-1 dispatching for police, fire, and EMS services to local jurisdictions.
Faced with severe declines in revenue, some counties are attempting to “give back” those dispatch services to local jurisdictions, or they are significantly increasing contract fees. County dispatching contracts often do not cover the actual costs associated with providing 9-1-1 services, making existing contracts highly undesirable obligations. But many local communities holding those contracts have long since divested themselves of the staff, technology, facilities, and FCC licenses that are required to support 9-1-1 public safety dispatching. And local agencies are facing the same financial challenges encountered by the county organizations providing services under a contractual “umbrella,” so local jurisdictions are resisting proposed changes in the service contracts. Given this history, consolidation or renegotiation of consolidated public safety services has taken on unprecedented importance to public officials and public safety professionals.
Almost without exception, consolidation considerations are based on the perceived “value” of efficiencies that can be achieved through improvements in technologies—and the added potential of substantial financial savings in personnel and facility costs. Initial consolidation studies usually substantiate and validate these perceptions. Counteracting the “value” argument is the fear of loss of control on the part of local elected officials. Hidden beneath these obvious issues, however, is a more serious problem—failure to recognize and address the human factors involved in the process.
Experience shows that the effort to assess consolidation issues usually began and ended with one assessment report that just compiles the projected costs and the savings. But the most challenging part of every consolidation—and the greatest failure point—is the neglect of human factor components.
In many consolidation studies, the human components—including the management of the consolidated centers—are addressed in a brief and logical fashion that treats the issues as virtually self-evident and almost incidental. But experience tells us that the human factors and their subsets are the most difficult elements to quantify, remove, or mollify. They are also the most unyielding obstacles to any consolidation effort.
Consolidation efforts across the country have had mixed results, and some spectacular failures. But that experience can be tapped to enhance future 9-1-1 consolidations by applying the five principles detailed below.
Principle #1: The primary challenge to consolidation is not technological.
Whether you achieve the projected fiscal efficiencies or not, your success will ultimately be based on whether you identified, discussed, and effectively dealt with the key human and political components before consolidation activities began. You have to put a plan into place to adequately address these issues.
Principle #2: The consolidation of 9-1-1 services is first and foremost a political process.
In any consolidation effort, the personnel and management challenge is the elephant in the room—and the topic that everyone sincerely believes can be worked out as the process evolves. But the human side of consolidation is difficult, confrontational, emotionally draining, and full of “land mines.” Because of these difficulties, the issues are often shunted aside to be worked out later. But instead, they continue to fester until they become the single greatest threat to the consolidation’s very survival.
The human factors, including political and union issues related to integration and center operational protocols, must be addressed well in advance of public discussions. Otherwise they will ultimately defeat what might well have been a magnificent start.
If you fail to address the political concerns, the result is painfully predictable. Your consolidated center will have “X” number of public safety agencies sharing a physical space, but all demanding to have their calls handled the same way they had been before consolidation. If you have ever worked in a “cafeteria-style” dispatch center, you know the outcome of this dispatch policy.
There are many obstacles that can impede consolidation.. Policies and protocols may be misconstrued, and misapplied from one community to another. Many failed centers maintain separate employee pay scales and benefits for “their” dispatchers, essentially only sharing physical space and equipment.
Unions will chafe at the obvious differences in policies, benefits, and pay. They will insist on equity, resulting in union demands for concessions or the reopening of contracts—neither of which is palatable to most communities. Union stakeholders must be part of the dialogue from the very beginning, and part of the ultimate solution. Without union participation, organizational acceptance and the ultimate success of consolidation will be unlikely.
Principle #3: The initial assessment or technical study is the easy part of a 9-1-1 consolidation.
For a consolidation to be successful, the very first step is to develop and agree on a memorandum of understanding (MOU) among the potential stakeholders. The MOU should address at least the following points:
- How will the consolidated centers be integrated from the Human Resource perspective? Issues to be resolved include the number of personnel and their positions, benefits, pay, policies, seniority, duties and responsibilities.
- How, when, where, and in what order will agencies physically integrate?
- How will the integration of agencies and personnel affect existing union contracts?
- How will call handling be determined and integrated for different jurisdictions and across different disciplines?
- How and by whom will the center be managed? Who will determine dispatch and personnel policies and procedures, and how and by whom will those polices be approved?
The MOU must emphasize and focus on human resources and center management. As difficult and even unpleasant as those issues can be, and however counterintuitive it seems, you must put technology and facilities considerations second. The terms of the MOU must be rendered acceptable to the majority and key stakeholders before consolidation begins. If you don’t reach timely agreement on all human-factor questions, the consolidation will ultimately fail.
Principle #4: When considering consolidation of 9-1-1 services, the human resource and call-handling processes, procedures, and policies are the first issues that should be addressed once “plausibility” has been established.
The issues of pay, supervision, benefits, personnel policies, perquisites of seniority, retirements and retirement benefits, personnel and center management, and integration of staff into new work groups must be foremost in any feasibility analysis. These concerns should be addressed through effective collaboration, consensus-building, planning, and implementation—and they should be considered months, perhaps years, before physical consolidation efforts begin.
Principle #5: Hire an unbiased, experienced, third-party professional consultant to facilitate the process.
Of course, the process must first pass the financial go/no-go plausibility question. This step is relatively easy. Unfortunately, it is also frequently considered to be the last step necessary to the process. But establishing financial plausibility only means you are cleared to seriously deal with the real issues that will determine whether consolidation will be a net plus for the participants. Many of the issues will be heavily laden with history, personalities, and the parochial interests of the haves and have-nots. An unbiased third party can objectively deal with these realities and make the goal of consolidation feasible.
The costs of ignoring these principles will be very high—much higher than any savings you are likely to achieve through technological or budget efficiencies. Nationwide, there have been more 9-1-1 consolidation failures than successes. And most of those unsuccessful experiments can be traced back to the failure to recognize and incorporate the five simple principles outlined above.
John F. Walker is Vice President of Willdan Homeland Solutions. He supports the delivery of communication and technology solutions to Willdan’s corporate and public safety clients in the local, state, and federal markets. With 35-years in the public safety community, Mr. Walker has experience as a patrol commander, a SWAT commander, and manager of a large metropolitan public safety answering point. Lee R. Evett us Vice President of Willdan Financial Services, supporting the delivery of revenue generation, enhancement, and administrative services to Willdan’s public agency clients. Mr. Evett is a former city manager with 36 years of public service, serving as the borough manager of Mercersburg and Hollidaysburg, PA, and city manager of Cape Coral, FL; Clayton, MO; Jupiter, FL; Pueblo, CO; and Los Alamitos, CA.
Top: Long Beach (CA) 9-1-1 center and EOC (originally published in our June 2006 issue);
Middle: The Edmonton Emergency Response Communications Center in Alberta, Canada. (Photo via Edmonton ERCC; originally published in our Nov/Dec 2006 issue);
Bottom: 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; originally published in our Nov/Dec 2007 issue).