Public Safety Departments On Board With Regional Dispatch Model
By: Michael C. Bailey
It is time to take Cape Cod’s fractured public safety dispatch system and unify it under one roof.
That is the consensus of the region’s public safety chiefs, who met Monday in Hyannis to discuss the future of emergency dispatching in Barnstable County.
“We want to be ahead of the curve on this…we want to be a model for the rest of the state,” Deputy Chief Craig Tamash of the Barnstable Police Department said. “We don’t want the state coming down and dictating to us,” he added, referring to a push by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security’s 911 Department to consolidate hundreds of Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) into regional operations.
“The number of PSAPs in the state is astronomical compared to other states,” Deputy Tamash said. Massachusetts has 266 registered PSAPs, according to Federal Communications Commission records, while Maryland, which is comparable in size to Massachusetts, has 12. “These are extremely expensive to operate, and one way or the other, [the state is] going to force people to consolidate.”
“That’s the big stick,” Chief Dennis Woodside of the Bourne Police Department said. “We really don’t have a choice. It’s going to happen and we need to embrace it and find a way to make it work. Dragging our feet is not an option.”
A key element of Monday’s discussion, hosted by the Barnstable County Regional Emergency Planning Committee’s 911 Dispatch Study Steering Committee, was a 2011 feasibility study of the Cape’s 911 system conducted by the New Jersey-based Intertech Associates.
According to information provided by the steering committee, which Deputy Tamash sits on, Barnstable County currently has a mix of regional and local dispatching operations. Cape Cod has 10 PSAPs that serve the region’s first responders, one of which is located in the Barnstable County Sheriff’s Department’s emergency dispatch center on the Massachusetts Military Reservation.
Nine of the Cape’s 20 fire departments use that PSAP and the sheriff’s department’s emergency dispatch service. The county also hosts the Cape’s Centralized Medical Emergency Dispatch (CMED) system, which coordinates communications between area hospitals and ambulances.
The remaining fire departments are self-dispatched or share dispatch services with their respective police departments, and 14 of the Cape’s 15 police departments handle their own dispatching.
Under One Roof
The steering committee is recommending that all dispatching services be unified within a regional emergency call center, a move the committee said would save Barnstable County some money in the long run—and could actually increase state and federal funding by leveraging grants unavailable to smaller, individual dispatch services.
“I can’t say this would save us a ton of money,” Deputy Tamash said, although there would be some cost savings in the long run. In the short term, there would be a considerable cost in order to purchase and train people on the new wave of emergency dispatch systems, NexGen 911.
“Current dispatching technology is becoming outdated,” Deputy Tamash said, due in part to the proliferation of cellphones and the decline in landline use. He said about 70 percent of all 911 calls are sent from cellphones.
However, the cost is worth the major benefit to citizens, Deputy Tamash said. “We would see a huge bump-up in efficiency and service to the public,” as well as to first responders.
Chief Rodney C. Collins of the Mashpee Police Department said he was unconvinced of that. “At this juncture, I don’t see it,” he said, adding that he agreed the county needs a single E911 system, but the proposal as a whole “has a lot more questions right now than answers.”
Deputy Tamash said “the technology part of this is simple” compared to the many other challenges of switching to a regional model, which include developing a governance and financing model for the creation, administration, and operation of a regional call center; transitioning dispatchers now working in local dispatch centers to the regional center; and how to handle “dark station” issues, i.e., police and fire stations that, in losing dispatchers, also lose their traditional first point of contact for the public entering the station during nighttime and early morning hours.
“I think a lot of these issues are going to be far beyond the power of the chiefs to influence,” Chief Anthony J. Riello of the Falmouth Police Department said, explaining that he expected the creation of a regional dispatch center to become “a serious political issue.”
However, the chief did not expect the loss of local control to result from the process. “We can’t give that up when we go regional,” he said.
Chief Woodside said the governance model is a major issue for him. “If we’re going to have regional dispatch, the chiefs need to have direct input on setting policy,” he said, and he supported the governing board model proposed by the steering committee.
Deputy Tamash said this governing board would comprise key stakeholders such as police and fire chiefs and town administrators. He added that the regional dispatch center would, ideally, be a completely independent or official county agency and no longer attached to the Barnstable County Sheriff’s Department, which is a state agency.
“We feel we would lose a lot of local control if it was a state operation,” he said, noting that both the Cape Cod Police Chiefs and Fire Chiefs associations formally support a locally run dispatch center.
The impact on staffing is not a concern for the Bourne PD, which, according to Chief Woodside, uses a single person to handle all 911 calls and public safety dispatching for the town, but for the Sandwich Police Department, “the initiative is coming at a perfect time for us,” Chief Peter N. Wack said.
The Sandwich PD does not have a civilian-manned dispatch center like other police departments, but instead relies on its uniformed officers to field calls for service. “We’d like to civilianize dispatch,” Chief Wack said. “Our police officers work the desk two to four times a month and their ability to maintain a solid knowledge of dispatch functions is challenging because, the rest of the time, they’re out on the streets.”
Chief Wack concurred with Chief Woodside about the need for local-level control, and added that local input would be necessary for establishing uniform policies and practices, since each individual police department “has its own practices when calling in to dispatch, different radio codes…a regional effort would have to bring all those different practices together under a uniform system.”
“Dispatch needs to work seamlessly with patrol operations,” he said. “It’s not a major issue, but it is something we’ll have to work out.”
Deputy Tamash added that the steering committee would need to figure out how the regional dispatch center would coordinate with municipal “ancillary services” such as animal control and harbor masters’ offices—non-police functions many towns have lumped in with their police operations—“because the police are the only ones there 24 hours a day...so we have to determine who is responsible for, say, calling the animal control officer at 3 in the morning.”
The “dark station” issue will have to be explored at length, but Deputy Tamash said many departments across the country operate successfully without that first point of contact in the dispatchers, “and I don’t think the public demands to have constantly staffed police stations.”
Chief Riello said the dark station issue is not a concern for him, and even after the transition he expected the Falmouth station “wouldn’t close at night…we would not be a dark station. We couldn’t do that in this community.”
Chief Collins said larger, busier departments such as his need that point of first contact, and for that reason alone a regional dispatch service would be impractical for some communities.
He added that Barnstable County, comprising 15 individuals towns, cannot necessarily operate in the same way as Onondaga County Department of Emergency Communications in New York, which the steering committee presented as an example of a successful large-scale regional dispatch operation.
“They weren’t comparing apples to apples,” Chief Collins said, pointing out that Onondaga County’s approach of simply sending the closest available cruiser would not necessarily work on Cape Cod “because of jurisdictional issues.”
What About The Sheriff?
Running parallel to this effort is the Barnstable County Sheriff’s Department’s own project to expand its current call center, which Special Sheriff Jeffrey D. Perry said is almost at capacity.
“We’ve gotten to the point where it’s almost full. We could handle bringing in one or two more towns,” Mr. Perry said, but beyond that the five-year-old communications center would be unable to accommodate the necessary hardware and personnel.
That is why the sheriff’s department is exploring its options for expansion, either of the MMR Fire Station it now calls home or to another building on the reservation, Mr. Perry said.
“Our goal is to increase the capacity of our Communications Center to be able to handle call answering and dispatch services to any town or fire district who requests us to do so,” Sheriff James M. Cummings wrote in a September 18 letter to town officials.
“Our position is and always has been, if any town wants to come talk to us about taking over dispatching, come talk to us,” Mr. Perry said.
Mr. Perry said the sheriff’s department’s project is independent of the new regional dispatch center initiative, and that is the way Sheriff Cummings would prefer to keep it.
“While some are calling for a mandatory single center on Cape Cod, it is my belief such decisions should be made by each town based on what is in their best interests and desired by the Selectmen, Town Administrators, Police and Fire Chiefs and most importantly, the citizens we collectively serve,” the sheriff wrote.