Town explores regionalized dispatch

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Colchester has joined eight other towns in a study examining the logistics of forming a regionalized dispatch center, and a final report is forthcoming at the end of the month.

Milton, Essex, Shelburne, South Burlington, Williston, Burlington, Winooski and Richmond round out the nine participating municipalities, orchestrated by the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission.

The study, which started with a kickoff presentation in October, was spurred by the recognition that “a more regionalized approach” may better meet emergency dispatching needs, the CCRPC website says.

On Tuesday, Jan. 31 at 7 p.m. in South Burlington’s City Hall, a California-based consulting firm called Deltawrx will present their suggestions for implementation.

CCRPC executive director Charlie Baker breaks the work into four layers: Integrating technology into a cohesive system, arranging an organized governance structure, creating a human resources system and budgeting.

“We’ve got to work through the issues and details in all four of those areas. There’s hope,” Baker said. “But there needs to be a lot of hard work done with all the participating towns to really see if we can get there.”

As it stands, 911 calls are typically answered in Williston, Baker said. The call taker relays the report to a dispatcher, taking an average of 90 seconds – a less-than-ideal response time in an emergency.

There’s also a question of staffing. The nine towns in question collectively employ 45 dispatchers, but Baker believes as few as 32 staffers could feasibly do the job.

That doesn’t necessarily mean job cuts are imminent, however. Baker envisions more supervisory positions in the regionalized model, providing the opportunity for advancement in a field with a typically high turnover rate.

“It’s just a challenging position where you’re either high pressure or low pressure – someone is calling 911 or they’re not,” Baker explained. “It takes a certain type of person to deal with that.”

The complicated conversation is not a new one, especially in Colchester.

In an interview earlier this month, police Chief Jennifer Morrison noted an archived newspaper article from 1967 – the year the department was founded – mentions a study of the benefits of moving to regionalizing dispatch.

By 1979, CPD provided its own daytime dispatching, Morrison said, with Winooski PD picking up evening, night and weekend calls.

Shortly thereafter, former-Chief Chuck Kirker led a transition to a full time, onsite dispatch system, Morrison said. That included taking on calls for surrounding Colchester emergency services, which previously counted on nearby towns for dispatching.

“That’s certainly something that was revolutionary, to get all those pieces and parts back under here,” Morrison said.

Since then, Colchester has extended its dispatch services across town lines. Under contract, Milton reimburses the town based on its share of calls, wages, supervision, overhead and equipment, according to a memo provided by deputy town manager Aaron Frank.

Calls for service have risen from 17,168 in fiscal year 2013 to 25,551 in FY16, the memo said. Colchester PD currently has eight full-time dispatchers to handle the load, Morrison said.

Milton pays for about 40 percent of the services, Frank said, leaving Colchester to pick up the remaining 60 percent of dispatch costs. In the proposed budget for FY18, Milton officials have allocated $243,742 to cover their share.

Morrison said her staff are shouldering a steadily increasing burden, one affected by more than just call volume.

“The world of dispatching has become far more technical and far more complicated than it used to be,” Morrison said. “It used to be that you kept a log. Well, now it’s very precise computerized dispatching and records-management systems with a lot more data fields to complete than it used to be.”

Since the original attempt 50 years ago, town officials have tried repeatedly to shake up the current system. In 2014, the selectboard authorized town manager Dawn Francis to negotiate a dispatch contract with Winooski’s police and fire departments.

And just last December, Francis sent a letter of interest to Essex officials stating Colchester was “interested in taking on additional community dispatch operations or contracting for dispatch services.”

Citing similar call volumes and community demographics, the letter called Essex an “ideal partner” for dispatch consolidation.

In recent presentations to the selectboard, Francis has pointed to escalating costs and staff burnout under the current model and discussed the potential for increased grant eligibility under a regionalized system.

A document on the CCRPC website lists multiple other tries, including a 2001 committee formed to examine dispatching services in Winooski, Burlington and South Burlington.

Baker said he can’t guarantee this effort will prevail but believes the combined town efforts are strong this go-around.

“Right now there’s a lot of positive goodwill and effort going into this from all the municipalities to try to figure out a better way to do this service,” Baker said.