Close to 100 dispatchers, first responders and town officials gathered at South Burlington’s City Hall last Tuesday to hear suggestions on implementing a regionalized dispatch center – a model two national consultants say could improve emergency services across Chittenden County.
Aaron Frank, Colchester’s chief financial officer and assistant town manager, sat on the presenting panel, joined by Shelburne town manager Joe Colangelo and Chittenden Regional Planning Commission executive director Charlie Baker.
Colchester joined Milton, Essex, Shelburne, South Burlington, Williston, Burlington, Winooski and Richmond in the CCRPC-led dispatch study, which started with a kickoff presentation last October and culminated with last week’s meeting.
Don Denning and Liz Coyle, representatives hired from a California-based firm called Deltawrx, emphasized the opportunity for quicker response times, cost-efficient staffing structures and the chance for career advancement among employees under a consolidated structure.
“Our goal in emergency dispatch is to get the right equipment to the right place in the least amount of time,” Denning told the audience.
As it stands, the region’s 911 calls are typically answered in Williston. The call taker relays the report to a dispatcher in the applicable police department, taking an average of 90 seconds – a less-than-ideal response time in an emergency, the presenters said.
The nine towns in question collectively employ 45 dispatchers, but the consultants believe as few as 38 could feasibly do the job if they worked out of a central office in a yet-to-be determined location.
The presenters also envisioned more supervisory positions in the regionalized model, providing the opportunity for advancement in a field with a typically high turnover rate.
Colchester PD employs eight full-time dispatchers who also field calls from Milton. The neighboring town reimburses Colchester based on its share of calls, wages, supervision, overhead and equipment. Frank said the arrangement saves both municipalities money and exemplifies the potentials of a bigger scale consolidation.
Colchester dispatchers have expressed some concerns about operation changes, job security and pay, town manager Dawn Francis said, but are also willing to learn more about the proposed organization.
One of the biggest changes would be a change in office hours. Onsite dispatchers often keep local departments open to drop-ins and informal calls 24/7. It’s unclear if, or how, that could continue with dispatchers moved offsite.
At the meeting, the crowd’s murmurs peaked when one attendee wondered aloud what he should do if a non-emergency situation occurred outside the station’s business hours. He said he’d want an officer to come if a group of kids were throwing eggs at his neighbor’s house, for example, but wouldn’t want to tie up a crisis line.
Call 911, Denning answered. The response elicited vocal opposition from several dispatchers in the room. One said they’ve told citizens the 3-digit hotline is for “life or death” emergencies only.
Colchester police Chief Jennifer Morrison later called Denning’s statement a communication error, and said the 7-digit office number folks typically call would likely still be in service after the office closed for the night. Instead of an officer answering at the Blakely Rd. station, though, the central dispatch office would pick up, she said.
This system is currently modeled on a smaller scale in the Colchester-Milton arrangement, Frank noted. Milton residents can call their department’s landline at any time, but a recorded message directs them to call dispatch after hours.
While Frank firmly believes a consolidated operation will improve access to emergency services, he acknowledged response time to those non-emergency requests might lengthen under the new system.
“The bigger issue around not having human beings answering phones in your shop is more the informal calls,” Morrison said. “That’s the piece we, locally and everywhere else, have to figure out.”
Francis agreed, recognizing the consultants work on a much larger scale.
“We’re going to have to do it the Vermont way,” she said.
Indeed, CPD will also need to decide how to absorb dispatchers’ administrative duties. Many help install car seats, direct permit applications and answer miscellaneous questions – all in addition to answering the phones.
“You’d be amazed at the hours of the day and night people come in to interact with our dispatchers,” Morrison said.
The study is the third of its kind Morrison has experienced in her career, but she said the current undertaking moves beyond “feasibility” and emphasizes implementation. It’s the most progress she’s ever seen the participating towns make.
Indeed, Francis said the town will try to take substantive steps this time around – and quickly.
The manager’s office will advise the selectboard to appoint a Colchester representative to a Joint Survey Committee at its Feb. 14 meeting. The committee would be charged with creating and approving a union municipal district.
Surrounding towns are expected to follow suit within the next 60 days, Francis said. She plans to recommend Frank for the post.
Still, Francis acknowledged part of the outcome is out of Colchester’s hands, as other departments may pull support for the project at any time. Town officials vowed not to abandon efforts if some municipalities took that path.
Colchester extended a dispatch partnership offer to Winooski a few years ago and to Essex more recently, Frank said. Both proposals are still under consideration, though Frank though he believes there’s more to be gained by working within a countywide operation.
“It [would be] a single instead of a home run,” Morrison said. “You can still win the game.”