Whatcom County (WA) Seeks Better, Cheaper Answer to 911 Call Centers

Photo/National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Robert Mittendorf

The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.)

(MCT)

Dec. 15—Combining Whatcom County’s two 911 dispatch centers, whose operators separately send law-enforcement officers or firefighters to calls for service, is back on the County Council’s agenda.

It’s both logical and a cost-saving measure to combine the two 911 centers, said Councilman Tyler Byrd.

“I’ve been working on all the documentation I can find on this and talking to people. I can’t find a single efficiency that comes out of this the way it is today,” Byrd said during a Nov. 12 budget session.

Calls to 911 currently go to WhatComm, where dispatchers ask about the nature of the emergency. WhatComm operators dispatch police or send fire and medical calls to Prospect dispatchers.

The administrative board that governs the emergency dispatch system decided in 2019 not to pursue consolidation, according to Forrest Longman, deputy budget director for the city of Bellingham.

But Byrd said he’s convinced that consolidation would create a better system that operates for less money.

Duplications occur because two buildings are required now, along with separate software and managers that come from the police and fire departments, he said.

Councilman Rud Browne suggested that 911 consolidation is growing more popular across Washington and the nation, noting that it’s been accomplished recently in Skagit and Snohomish counties, among others.

“There are many other jurisdictions that are much larger than us with more diverse communities that only have one 911 center,” Browne said. “I don’t know why we can’t do it with one. I think it’s duplication that can be eliminated.”

But Councilman Todd Donovan said he’s spoken with firefighters who persuaded him that separate dispatch centers work best.

“My sense with them was that we were better served by the system as it works,” Donovan said. “I know it sounds like these are redundancies but I think that they do quite different things and we need them both.”

The council voted 5-2 last week, with Donovan and Councilwoman Carol Frazey opposed, to discuss consolidation of the two 911 call centers with those who use and operate the system, including the public, by March 31, 2021.

Two 911 Centers

Law enforcement’s Whatcomm dispatchers and the fire and medical aid dispatchers at Prospect Communications provide emergency backups to each other.

“Dispatchers guide people through some of the most difficult moments in their lives,” said Prospect dispatcher Douglas Chronister, who is president of their local union.

For example, Prospect sends an ambulance for a minor injury or illness; a medic unit for life-threatening ailments; and engines, ladder trucks and command staff for a house that’s on fire.

“This process takes place very quickly, and the WhatComm call receiver can remain on the line to gather information for calls that also require a law enforcement response,” according to a 2018 report from an independent agency that recommended combining both centers.

  • Governing Agency

Both dispatch centers are operated by Bellingham under an agreement between the city and Whatcom County, and their operations are governed by a nine-member board composed of elected officials and command staff representing fire and police departments.

Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo is the current board chairman.

Costs are shared by the agencies they serve, including police and fire departments, the Sheriff’s Office, and the 10 fire protection districts serving rural areas of Whatcom County.

Their annual operating budget is around $6.9 million, Longman told The Bellingham Herald in an email.

In 2020, some $7.5 million was budgeted, but $600,000 of that was one-time expenses related to building maintenance and repairs, Longman said.

“Dispatch operations are funded through a combination of 911 tax revenue (charging .70 cents per line) and user fees paid by Whatcom County and the cities,” Longman said.

Who They Are

Police and fire dispatch centers were operating separately until the 911 program began locally in 1983 and they merged into one, said Bellingham Fire Chief Bill Hewett.

They split into their current format 21 years ago, in 1999.

WhatComm’s police dispatchers work from a former fire station in the Sunnyland neighborhood and are supervised by police Deputy Chief Scott Grunhurd.

Prospect fire dispatchers are in Bellingham Fire Station No. 1 on Broadway Street but are known by the radio call sign “Prospect” because their original home was on Prospect Street — in the former fire station next to the Old City Hall museum building.

They’re supervised by fire Division Chief Dan McDermott.

Dispatch Times

WhatComm dispatchers fielded 138,574 calls to 911 in the last 12 months, Grunhurd told The Herald in an email.

On average, calls are answered within 3.7 seconds — 98.2% of calls were answered within 10 seconds and 99.96% were answered within 20 seconds.

That’s well within the standard set by the National Emergency Number Association, which says 90% of 911 calls should be answered within 10 seconds and 95% should be answered within 20 seconds, Grunhurd said.

When someone calls 911 for a fire or EMS emergency, it takes an average 15 seconds from the time the call is answered at WhatComm to the time a Prospect dispatcher takes the call, said Gregory Erickson, WhatComm’s deputy director.

Both communications centers use Versaterm, a software operating system for computer-aided dispatch, which is known by its acronym CAD.

Dispatchers talk to 911 callers and find out where they are and what’s the matter.

Then they dispatch the appropriate police, fire or aid units and monitor progress of the call both over the radio and on CAD.

Police officers and firefighters can see CAD details on their mobile devices and on laptop computers mounted in their patrol cars, fire engines and ambulances.

And all the while, dispatchers are talking to callers who are frightened or angry or injured, helping them focus on providing the information that responders need to help them.

“Both do a great job at what they do,” Elfo told The Herald. “Law-enforcement dispatchers understand the complexities of a domestic violence call, or a burglary in progress.”

Mike Hilley, Whatcom County’s medical services manager said Prospect dispatchers are certified in pre-hospital emergency medicine and the logistics of firefighting operations.

“Those dispatchers are trained EMTs. It’s a different skill set,” Hilley told The Herald.

Both WhatComm and Prospect share maintenance and management of their system, according to the 2018 study by IXP Corp., a public-safety services company in New Jersey.

WhatComm

WhatComm dispatchers receive 10 months of training from the state E911 office, and are also certified in ACCESS, which stands for A Central Computerized Enforcement Service System, through the Washington State Patrol, Grunhurd said.

“This training and certification provide criminal justice clearance and allows our dispatchers to access state and national databases to obtain information on warrants, protection orders, drivers’ licenses, vehicle registrations, and criminal histories among other criminal justice information,” Grunhurd said.

“WhatComm dispatchers are the link between the public and officers in the field. They gather information from callers via 911, enter the information into a computer database, and relay that information to responding officers. Dispatchers are responsible for dispatching officers, monitoring officer activity, performing research, and gathering and relaying information to officers,” he said.

Calls for all law-enforcement agencies in Whatcom County are handled at WhatComm, except Washington State Patrol, Western Washington University Police and federal agencies.

Prospect

Similarly, Prospect dispatchers specialize in fire, rescue and pre-hospital emergency medicine, Chronister said.

“Our fire/EMS dispatchers have all achieved Washington state EMT certification and maintain specialized fire and medical dispatch certification from the International Academy of Emergency Dispatch,” he told The Herald in an email. “It is routinely the case that survival depends on the actions callers take, with the help of specialized dispatch instructions, before responders arrive.”

That training allows them to triage emergencies based on the nature of the call — from a broken arm to a possible stroke or a car on fire.

Prospect dispatchers have saved people’s lives, including about a dozen in the past year, by coaching 911 callers who’ve never done CPR.

“I’m just really proud of Prospect. They do a really good job. We’ve got dispatchers who are trained to get hands on the chest right away,” Hilley said.

Separate Skills

Hewett, who started his career with nearly seven years as a WhatComm dispatcher, told The Herald that he sees a public-safety benefit in the separate centers.

“Just as police officers and firefighters have different types of training and skills, so do police dispatchers and fire dispatchers,” Hewett said in an email. “While both jobs involve answering emergency calls and directing responders over the radio, there are significant differences in the highly technical knowledge that each of the different types of dispatchers needs for their specialty.”

“The current model has functioned well for the past 21 years and the consultant (in the 2018 consolidation study) notes that they ‘did not observe any significant deficiencies in the operations at either center,’ ” Hewett said.

Still, Elfo said of consolidation, “it’s hard to ignore. There was a study that recommended it. (But) to proceed with this, there’s a lot of complexities.”

Merging the two centers would involve more than simply putting all the dispatchers into one building.

There are different unions who represent the two dispatch centers and they’re in different pension plans.

There’s also new cross-training to consider and new hiring and training considerations for a new combined 911 center.

A backup center would be required in case the main 911 center suffered fire, earthquake damage or equipment failure.

Logistics and Costs

Councilman Browne said that the county’s current Emergency Operations Center, or EOC, could be remodeled to accommodate a combined 911 center, and the dispatchers would keep their current pension systems.

“I’m not trying to take anything away from the existing staff,” Browne told The Herald in an interview. “In fact, I’d like to give them a better work environment. I fully appreciate the work of the 911 people. It can be a challenging job, and an emotionally taxing job.”

Hewett said the 911 administrative board sought two studies over the past five years.

“One was to look at remodeling the EOC to accommodate a joint dispatch center (for police and fire), as well as the EOC, and the price tag at the time was approximately $10 million,” Hewett said. “The second study was to build a stand-alone dispatch center (no EOC) to hold both police and fire and the price tag was approximately $7.6 million. These costs only addressed creation of a singular center, neither involve identifying any issues or costs associated with maintaining a backup facility.”

As far as cost savings, the 2018 IPX study did indicate that “the savings in both facility and technology support costs may not be significant, but over time they also tend to not grow at the same rate as two separate centers,'” Hewett said.

Some savings will be seen from lower staffing levels required with a combined 911 center, the IPX report said.

“In the end we would achieve facility and technology savings that the consultant said ‘may not be significant’ and staffing savings that ‘may be slightly lower,’ ” Hewett said.

SNO 911 System

Snohomish County 911 formed in 2018 by combining SNOPAC dispatch, which served nearly 40 police and fire agencies, with the smaller SNOPAC, which served fewer than 10 agencies — including the Sheriff’s Department and the county’s largest fire district, according to a 2020 report that evaluated success of the merger.

SNO911 joins dozens of 911 systems across the nation, including Jefferson County, Colorado, which combined eight regional centers in 2017, and Richmond, Virginia, which merged its police and fire dispatch center with its ambulance dispatch center at a cost of nearly $4 million in 2014.

In Snohomish County, the merger was driven in part by an average delay of 21 seconds in transferring callers between the two agencies and a shooting incident with several victims that required dispatchers from both agencies to coordinate the response of multiple police and fire agencies.

Transitioning to a single system took 18 months and less than $1 million, according to the report.

Assessing Results

Consolidation of the two 911 systems is “a topic that re-emerges from time to time,” said Erickson, the WhatComm deputy director.

“It’s not bad — we should be looking at how our process works,” Erickson said.

And Chronister, whose union opposes a merger, emphasized that the two centers do vastly different work and each can serve as backup to the other.

“The issue of combining centers has been studied multiple times, and each time the board has decided to continue with separate centers. The last study and decision to remain separate was as recent, within the last year or two. Conducting studies can have a significant cost,” he said.

“The public deserves well-trained, specialized care, backed up by redundant centers in case of large-scale emergencies. It is important to always be looking for ways to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, but attempting to cut corners in situations where life and death is at stake would not serve our community well,” he said.

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(c)2020 The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.)

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