Article IV: Formation of a Regional Public Safety Dispatch Service

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Thursday February 22, 2018

The moment someone dials 911, the clock is already ticking. And every second counts.

South Burlington voters, along with voters in six other Chittenden County communities are being asked to consider establishing a Union Municipal District (UMD), known as the Chittenden County Public Safety Authority, to consolidate dispatch services for police, fire, and emergency medical across multiple municipalities.

South Burlington, along with Burlington, Colchester, Milton, Shelburne, Williston, and Winooski are considering participation in the formation of this unified program; the Essex selectboard opted out. Currently, these communities each operate their own dispatch services independently.

The idea of consolidated services is not a new one. Union Municipal Districts are already in place throughout the county, around the state and across the country. Champlain Water District, Chittenden County Solid Waste District, and Green Mountain Transit are examples of UMDs already in service in Vermont. Communities in Chittenden County began exploring the idea of shared public safety services in the 1960’s.

At a public information meeting held recently at the South Burlington Public Library, City Manager Kevin Dorn played out an example of current operations. “The way dispatch works today? Say we’re here [at the library]. Someone is having a heart attack and we dial 9-1-1. The call goes to a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP); the PSAP for this area is the Williston State Police Barracks. There are about seven to eight PSAPs in the state. If they’re busy, it bounces to another PSAP somewhere else in the state. So, you can imagine, this takes time,” Dorn explained. He went on to describe the cascading effect that can occur when multiple emergency calls are coming in to dispatch at once.

Following a 2016 study and the formation of a Joint Survey Committee, the communities learned that combining dispatch for police, fire, and emergency medical services can save an average of 70 seconds of transfer time per 911 call and provide efficiencies of services.

Bringing a PSAP into a Union Municipal District is one way to streamline efficiencies. Another way is with shared technology, particularly, a Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system, the latest GPS technology in dispatch.

“Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) greatly enhances the data that is available to the dispatcher. Under the system we will have, the dispatcher will have a screen that is laid out as a map, and he or she will know where every piece of emergency response equipment is in the county,” Dorn said.

The city and town managers, city councils and select boards of the seven communities, along with 18 chiefs of police and fire services, including South Burlington’s own, support the UMD.

“It is my belief that the City of South Burlington becoming a part of a regionalized dispatch center would provide faster response to emergencies, better staffing, and improved working conditions,” Police Chief Trevor Whipple expressed to the city in a letter endorsing the program. “Having an overall larger staff pool would allow for more dispatchers to be on duty at one time, opportunities for supervisory positions, ongoing training, and quality control.” Whipple previously talked about how stressful the job can be, noting the “benefits of leveraging current technologies such as mapping and call taking programs will benefit the stress dispatchers face now.”

South Burlington dispatch is currently fully staffed with six full-time employees and three part-time positions. Dispatch staffing at this level operates with only one person on duty for nearly 60 percent of the time. The proposed regional dispatch model would operate with a staff of about 34 dispatchers with at least 3 dispatchers and a supervisor on the job at all times.

Doug Brent, chief of fire and EMS in South Burlington, also shared wholehearted support. Brent served on the Joint Survey Committee and visited locations in Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and Massachusetts where similar services have already been implemented. Reflecting on the results of the programs he studied, Brent said, “The efficiencies are too enormous to enumerate, they’re incredible.”

“I believe the time has come,” he wrote in a memorandum voicing his full support of the concept of regional receipt and dispatch of emergency, police, fire and EMS calls. “The safety of the public and the safety of our employees are the critical elements. Reduction in response time by over a minute due to changes in call processing and alarm handling – this concept needs to move forward,” he wrote.

The site identified to locate the unified dispatch would be in the same building as the South Burlington Police Station on Gregory Drive, but it is a separate entity and not a part of the department.

If supported by a vote, city council will then consider a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which will lay out South Burlington’s projected fair share for dispatch.

“It’s at that time, once the council has approved our funding of dispatch, that we become full members of dispatch. The MOU is fundamentally based upon call volume,” Dorn explained. “…We know today what we pay for dispatch – we can determine salaries, a piece of the overhead of the billing, and we generally know what we’re paying for dispatch services. That amount will be dedicated to the new dispatch.”

“Until we know who’s in, we really can’t project out what our costs are going to be, but it’s not going to be more than what we’re paying now,” he added.

As for a timeframe, it will be an incremental process. A couple of communities may join initially, and then others may join at a different time. Municipalities may participate as partners or on a contractual pay-per-service basis. Burlington has the largest call volume by a significant volume, and a PASP will need to be set up before taking on a huge call volume.

“71 seconds can save your life, and that is, above all things, why we have been working with other city managers and public safety chiefs to advance this notion,” Dorn said.


SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent