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Lawmakers Will Look To Regionalize Municipal Dispatch Centers

by Hugh McQuaid | Jan 23, 2014 12:00pm
(5) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Town News, Law Enforcement, Public Safety

Courtesy of the Westport PD

Some lawmakers on the Planning and Development Committee will push for regionalizing the state’s complex network of emergency call answering centers this year amidst controversy over an executive effort to consolidate State Police dispatch centers.

Rep. Jason Rojas, co-chairman of the Planning and Development Committee, said he plans to raise a bill unrelated to the State Police dispatch center consolidation, an effort already under way within Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration.

The Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection’s initiative to reduce the number of State Police dispatch centers from 12 to 5 has been vehemently opposed by the Connecticut State Police Union. Lawmakers representing impacted towns have indicated they will seek to review the State Police dispatch consolidation this year.

Rojas’s bill would look to consolidate some of the state’s 100 or so Public Safety Answering Points. PSAPs are call centers that are scattered across the state. They are often operated by individual municipalities.

What happens now if you dial 911, is your call is picked up by someone at a local PSAP, who will direct it to the appropriate agency or dispatch center. But how an emergency call is handled in Connecticut depends on the town or region of the state from which the call is made.

Rojas is hoping to merge some of these call centers in an effort to encourage regional cooperation and “reduce the level of fragmentation and duplication of efforts that’s present in Connecticut in just about everything we do.”

But Rojas acknowledges the ongoing quarrel over State Police dispatch centers doesn’t help his cause.

“The way that’s happened — it’s certainly not helpful to this effort, but there’s some different issues at play here,” he said.

That’s because, according to some recent studies, Connecticut’s network of call centers could benefit from some regionalization. Rojas points to a study published last year by the New England Public Policy Center, which concluded that Connecticut could reduce its related expenses by roughly 60 percent by consolidating the centers by county.

According to the study, Connecticut and Massachusetts have more centers than the national average relative to their land areas and populations.

“This decentralized PSAP structure leaves significant room for consolidation,” the study read. “Even after accounting for the relatively large number of cities, towns, and other local governments, Massachusetts and Connecticut have exceptionally large numbers of PSAPs, compared with other states.”

However, consolidation can be a difficult sell to towns if it means giving up local control. A survey found that many towns would consider the consolidations, but they often want conditions like having the merged facility located in their municipality.

The Planning and Development Committee raised a bill last year that would have required another study on the issue, but the proposal died in the Appropriations Committee. Municipal organizations like the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and the Council of Small Towns supported that bill.

But some were wary of a state mandate driving the consolidations.

“Some towns may want to participate in consolidation programs but should not be forced to regionalize if they believe that it will undermine public safety or increase costs for their communities,” Betsy Gara, executive director of COST, said last year.

It’s not clear yet how this year’s proposal will be written. The concept is listed as one of many the Planning and Development Committee will raise for consideration when the group meets on Friday.

Rojas said he would prefer to incentivize regional mergers through funding adjustments over time. He said some towns may still view the change as a mandate for consolidation.

“I think we may be at a point where that has to happen,” he said.

Opposition to state mandates has killed the dispatch regionalization proposal in the past. A version of the bill successfully cleared the legislature in 2010, but was vetoed by former Gov. M. Jodi Rell. In her veto message, Rell said she supported the concept of regionalism but called the bill “problematic” because it mandated a change without considering the individual emergency needs of towns.

“The law mandates a one-size fits all approach without consideration of the fact that certain regions may have different needs in emergency services and competing obstacles to consolidation,” she said. “. . . A service as critical as the dispatch of emergency services is best managed through customized decisions made at the local level, rather than a broad-brush mandate imposed from the State Capitol.”

It’s not the only reason that some towns oppose the concept. Many are uncomfortable with the idea of their local emergency stations going “dark” after hours or don’t want to see a reduction of their direct oversight of the dispatch centers. Critics of the proposal also say a regional approach to dispatch reduces the level of specific community knowledge on the part of the telecommunication staff.

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(5) Comments

posted by: Matt from CT | January 23, 2014  3:42pm

The primary obstacle to consolidating dispatch centers , for those serving local police departments, is Connecticut’s system of handling warrants.

A cop gets a hit on a person that there is a warrant.  Their dispatcher must contact the department that holds the warrant for someone to physically verify the actual paper warrant is there and is valid.

So if you’re a small town department, and you don’t want to keep a well paid police officer at the station…you have this role filled by a dispatcher.

Moving all the warrants to a central location(s), as the State Police have, raises another problem—to process the prisoner, you must have the physical warrant which may have information not in the computer regarding bail or other conditions to hold the prisoner on.

So right now in my area, Troop D can no longer process warrant prisoners locally—they have to travel to Troop C in Tolland where the dispatchers and warrants are.

You can consolidate 911 call taking, like RI has done, but still end up with each little town having it’s own department and dispatcher, and why not have them dispatch if you’re paying them to hang around to verify warrants and greet people entering the station?

The REAL solution is restoring the State Police barracks to their previous status—staffed by a dispatcher and Trooper (for security and protecting the public seeking refuge) for the rural areas and encourage small towns to use these for their dispatch/warrant/lockup.

For the more populated suburbs, the goal should be regional police departments serving populations of at least 40,000, and upwards of 100,000—big enough where one regional police station serves three or four or five towns.  Still reasonable distance to travel, large enough to have at least two dispatchers on duty, large enough to have an officer assigned around the clock to the station to provide a fixed point of refuge for the public to flee when in danger.

The Resident State Trooper model is one of the best models of regionalization in the U.S. and IMHO most towns under 40,000 should either be under State Police or form a regional department if we just can’t bring ourselves to give up that local control. 

In Canada almost all cities under 40,000 contract with the agency providing provincial police services—the Mounties in most provinces, or the Ontario Provincial Police or Surete Quebec in those two provinces.

posted by: Matt from CT | January 23, 2014  3:46pm

>local emergency stations
>going “dark” after hours

On this point specifically, if you’re not big enough to afford to have a police officer posted at the station…what does it matter?

So the civilian dispatcher to can look at you being beat up in the lobby from behind bullet proof glass?

Or so the dispatcher looking at a video monitor can radio an officer to come to the station because a prisoner in a cell is hanging himself?

posted by: Historian | January 23, 2014  4:08pm

There is part of the bloated bureaucracy that derives from the local “volunteer” fire, ambulance and police services. A closed little world of families who make a living off police and fire/medical jobs - many in support positions such as these call in centers.  The staties are fighting the loss of cushy state police call in centers since they are soft jobs and a good place to place “rubber gun” officers to prevent their firing for various violations and performance in the field issues.

posted by: dano860 | January 24, 2014  8:51am

I think they will find that the two hour response in Wndham the other day was a result of the consolidation.
The children are in a bathroom calling 911 as the thief’s ransack the home. They call the father, he calls 911, no response!  Luckily a family friend drove by and noticed an unfamiliar car in the driveway. He chased off the intruders.
Other small incidents are occurring in the quiet corner more and more often, they just aren’t being published.
Ct. Has never had a good radio communication system that works between all emergency responders. S.P., local P.D.‘s, fire departments, they are all on separate systems. It barely works for the State Police amount themselves.

posted by: Matt from CT | January 24, 2014  11:00am

>as never had a good radio
>communication system that
>works between all emergency
>responders. S.P., local
>P.D.‘s, fire departments,

At least for Fire Departments, it depends where.

New London, Windham, and Tolland counties since the 1950s have shared a common frequency (33.90) which although most areas now many other for routine calls…pretty much every piece of apparatus in that area can talk on 33.90 if needed.

That frequency was originally licensed to the City of New London which graciously shared it with the entire three counties.

The regional dispatch centers serving Windham & Tolland Counties—there used to be three, now effectively there are two, receive enhanced state funding that traces their legacy as to when Counties were abolished and the state assumed responsibility for the regional radio network formerly funded by the county commissioners and run from the watch desk of their respective county jails.

(Willimantic had the third regional system, but due to costs and other reasons is now down to just two towns; Colchester Emergency Communications also serves the New London / Tolland / Middlesex county area and was modeled after the systems in Windham & Tolland but came from a slightly different historical development.)

Litchfield County in the late 1980s started building a regional system similar to the northeastern quarter of the state as well.

But this is one of the issues of myopic vision in Connecticut that folks don’t realize 40+% of the land area in Connecticut, at least for fire departments, are already served by effective and well established regional dispatches.