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Comparing local, county dispatches



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August 08, 2012 - It's no easy task comparing and contrasting the dispatch systems operated by the Oxford Village Police and Oakland County Sheriff's departments.

Although the two centers essentially perform the same function– receiving and dispatching police, fire and emergency medical calls – they couldn't be more different in terms of size.

Right now, the village council is investigating the pros and cons of each dispatch center and trying to decide whether it should continue operating a local system or contract with the county for this service.

Representatives from each center are each making their case as to why council should choose them.

"A local dispatch is something that a community takes pride in having," said Village Police Director of Communications Debbie O'Farrell, a 22-year veteran of the department. "When communities lose local dispatch centers, they lose part of their identity in the public safety community."

"We invite our public to come visit us, take a tour and ask us questions," she added. "We are proud of what we do, proud of the community we serve and would love to take (the) opportunity to share that with you."

Mel Maier, who's chief of communications for the county, argued a main "advantage" of using his system is "the costs for maintaining equipment and personnel are shared" between the county and all the contract communities.

"Budget savings (for individual communities) are realized by eliminating the need to replace equipment" and the need to pay the "associated yearly service contracts and fees," he explained. Also, "personnel are hired, trained and certified (by the county) as public safety dispatchers with no long-term or legacy costs to either the township or village."

The best way to compare the two dispatch centers is to break things down by the numbers and other factors.

Cost

According to Undersheriff Mike McCabe, county's price to dispatch the village's police calls would be "just over $27,000" annually.

To dispatch all of the township and village's fire/EMS calls, which is currently done locally, would have cost $31,109 for this year with a 2 percent increase for next year

"Let's say (the village's) dispatch went away . . . we would end up contracting with Oxford Township to do fire dispatch for them," McCabe explained. "It's a township department."

These figures are far less than what it currently costs to operate and maintain the village dispatch system.

As part of its 2012-13 budget, the village allocated $371,082 for dispatch services, of which $75,000 was for upgrades to the communications system. Of that $75,000, a total of $50,000 was contributed by the township as part of a lawsuit settlement. The remaining $296,082 was for operations.

Included in that operations amount is the $35,020 for 2012 which the village is charging the township to receive and dispatch fire/EMS-related calls.

Coverage area

Oxford's dispatch center handles all the police-related calls within the 1-square-mile village and all the fire/EMS calls for the 36-square-mile township including the village.

In 2011, the village dispatch center handled a total of 6,401 police calls. So far this year, it's handled 3,981 such calls for law enforcement. As for fire/EMS calls, the village dispatch center handled 1,550 such calls in 2011. This year, to date, it's handled 1,150 such calls.

As a county entity, the sheriff's dispatch handles a much larger area and volume of calls.

The county provides dispatch services for 13 fire departments, five police departments, 14 sheriff's substations, one EMS company and five Special Response Teams.

Among those fire departments that contract with the county are Oxford's neighbors Addison, Brandon, Oakland and Independence townships.

In 2011, county dispatch handled 213,175 police calls and 22,438 fire/EMS calls. As of July 31, 2012, the county has dealt with 145,979 police calls and 12,392 fire/EMS calls.

Personnel

County's dispatch center employs a total of 57 people. That includes one chief of communications, one quality assurance supervisor, six shift supervisors, one office assistant and 48 dispatchers.

"Shifts are eight hours long and routinely staffed (by) 10 to 15 dispatchers depending on the time of day," Maier said.

Extra staffing is brought in as needed.

"In the event of a large-scale fire or police incident, a dedicated radio operator for ground monitoring will be assigned, leaving the primary dispatcher to handle day-to-day runs," Maier noted.

Oxford's center is staffed by three full-time and four part-time dispatchers.

"We work 12-hour shifts," O'Farrell said. "On Sundays, we work eight-hour shifts."

Each shift is staffed by one dispatcher.

"Anytime we go under any kind of storm warnings, we call in a second dispatcher, so we're always prepared for big storms," O'Farrell said.

Single dispatcher versus call-taker/dispatcher combo

A long-standing argument between village and county dispatch is which system is more efficient – having a dispatcher who both receives and dispatches calls or having a call-taker who obtains the information from the caller, then forwards it to a dispatcher.

"Local dispatch centers generally operate with one dispatcher," O'Farrell said. "This speeds up call processing time since information is taken by only one person and relayed simultaneously to field units responding to calls. The more people involved in the call-handling process, the longer the processing time takes."

Maier disagreed. "Most dispatch centers are moving to the call-taker and radio dispatcher model," he said. "It allows the caller to stay on the line and receive 100 percent attention from the call-taker."

Maier explained that the Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system used by the county "sends the information up to the radio dispatcher in real time."

"There is no delay," he said.

"Using a hands-free intercom, the radio dispatcher and call-takers can answer questions that (emergency) first-responders have as needed," Maier continued. It also makes it possible to give "pre-arrival instructions to callers and (stay) on the telephone until help arrives."

"Callers have reported to first-responders that they felt like it is a zero-response time – they were still on the phone with the dispatcher when help arrived," he noted.

Geography for $500, Alex

One of the main arguments proponents of local dispatch always use is the idea that local dispatchers know the area better than folks working in Pontiac.

"Local dispatch centers are benefitted by the dispatcher's knowledge of their geographic area and business district, which aides in field unit response times," O'Farrell said. "Oxford dispatchers have a combined 79 years of experience solely dispatching for the community of Oxford."

Maier argued his personnel already know Oxford based on personal experiences and advanced technology.

"Local knowledge is available to our call-takers and radio dispatchers – many of whom have grown up and live in Oxford," he said. "We currently dispatch all police activity in Oxford Township and assist Oxford PD in the village frequently.

"Our dispatchers have live (real-time) access through our CAD system to all run-history at a location in the village or township, (plus) any alerts – past violence, hazardous materials, officer safety, special medical needs – as well as important information such as key-holders, owners and emergency contact numbers. This is information already in the system."

Frequent callers to 9-1-1 are documented in the county system. New streets or addresses are added to the mapping systems on a monthly basis.

"Each time a 9-1-1 call comes into (county dispatch), the state-of-the-art Positron VIPER system establishes location and plots it on a map on the call-taker's screen," Maier explained. "Local ordinances are discussed and procedure sheets in our resource manuals at each workstation . . . will help call-takers to solve complaints from residents (such as) no power, no water, open-burning, noise ordinance (complaints), etc."

Local extras

O'Farrell noted local dispatchers don't just sit and wait for calls to come in.

They "do a variety of other tasks," she said. "The dispatch center provides support services to the DPW (Department of Public Works) and DDA (Downtown Development Authority)."

Oxford's dispatchers "also work as record-keepers for the (police) agency, which involves (arrest) warrant entries, burn permits, subpoena processing, (and) processing and printing (police) report requests from citizens," O'Farrell explained.

"This saves the cost of hiring a front desk person (for) 40 hours a week to perform these duties," she said.

Oxford dispatchers also monitor the police station's jail cell, which requires 24/7 surveillance. The jail not only serves the village, it also helps other police agencies by lodging their prisoners for pickup.

"This keeps all our officers on the road patrolling and available for calls rather than having to leave their jurisdictions short-staffed while transporting prisoners," O'Farrell said. "This service is provided at no additional cost."

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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