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Orion fire chief pleased with switch to county dispatch

January 29, 2014 - As Oxford prepares to make the switch from local to county dispatch services for its fire and emergency medical calls, it can look to Orion Twp. as a model for the transition.

"Everything has been going better than I would have even imagined," said Orion Fire Chief Robert Smith.

The Oakland County Sheriff's Office began handling all of Orion Township's fire and emergency medical calls on Dec. 16, 2013.

Prior to that, the township had been using the Lake Orion Village dispatch center, which closed earlier this year.

"I was hoping for a good switch," Smith said. "It actually went a lot smoother than I had anticipated."

From the moment the township began working with the county in the fall to prepare for the change, Smith said the sheriff's office has been "just phenomenal to work with."

"They take care of our needs," he said. "I was blown away by the amount of people that they have there."

The county center currently employs a total of 54 dispatch specialists who are cross-trained to work as call-takers and radio operators. Depending on the time of day, there are a minimum of 10 to 13 dispatch specialists on duty during each shift. That number increases during the "power shift."

"We have a power shift that adds two (call-takers) during the busy part of the day," explained Mel Maier, chief of communications for the county.

This "power shift" runs from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

These staffing levels are just minimums. There can be more working on any given day.

"Some days, we have 16 or 17 (on duty)," Maier said. "Today, on afternoons, we have 17 people scheduled. One person took a vacation day, so we have 16 people working."

Maier noted that once Oxford signs a contract, the county center will add one full-time dispatch specialist to the midnight shift.

County dispatch isn't perfect, but it doesn't ignore its errors, according to Smith.

"Everybody's going to have mistakes," he said. "My experience has been anytime that we've had a mistake, though, they get right on it. They take care of it right away."

Smith noted that so far, they've been "trivial mistakes" such as calling his agency the Lake Orion Fire Department when the actual name is the Orion Twp. Fire Department.

Although the Lake Orion Village dispatch center did "a bang-up job" for 60 years, Smith believes the number of calls his agency receives has increased to the point that they're too numerous to be handled by a system that has one dispatcher on duty per shift.

Last year, Orion's fire department handled 2,104 calls. That's similar to Oxford, which received 1,957 fire/EMS calls in 2013.

"That's the most I've had in the last 10 years," Smith said. "We're putting in 700 (new) homes in the next couple years. Our volume's just going to grow and personally, just one dispatcher would be hard-pressed to handle it."

This year show no signs of slowing down.

"Right now, I'm at 160 calls for the month," said Smith on Jan. 23. "This is just unheard of. I've never experienced this in my 26 years here, having this many calls in a month. "

Smith said he's on track to have more than 200 calls in January and he's "never" had that many calls in one month "except for December 2013 when we had the ice storm."

"I am just getting hammered here," he said.

During this interview, Smith noted he had one station that was involved in three calls simultaneously. He said county was handling the situation "phenomenally" whereas a one-dispatcher system "could get overwhelmed."

"We're just getting so busy that we feel the call-taker and the dispatcher, they need to be separate people," the chief explained.

At the county dispatch center, call-takers answer the phones and obtain basic information such as name, address, phone number and the nature of the emergency for 9-1-1 calls, then send it via the Computer Aided Dispatch system to a radio operator, who dispatches the appropriate first-responders.

The information is sent in real time, so there's no delay.

"Depending on the time of day, we have either five or six dedicated radio operators and then the rest are call-takers," Maier said.

Three radio operators are always dedicated to handling police calls and two or three to fire calls. Once a contract with Oxford is signed, there will be three radio operators dedicated to fire calls 24-7, according to Maier.

Smith believes this is a better system because the call-taker can stay on the line and continue helping the caller if necessary, while a radio operator is busy deploying first-responders to the scene.

"The call-taker is dedicated to you," he said. "Plus, (the county has) multiple call-takers down there, so if (one is busy on the line), another call-taker can pick up (other calls) and still give the same services."

Smith understands what it's like to be a dispatcher because he worked as one for the City of Northville and the Oakland County Safety Division during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Based on those experiences, he said "75 percent of the time everything is mundane" in a dispatch center. "It's routine and they can keep up with it," Smith said.

Because of this, he understands why small dispatch centers "can't justify the extra money" to have two dispatchers 24-7.

For example, if the Oxford Village dispatch center were to add a second dispatcher per shift 24-7, it would cost the municipality an additional $113,246 annually using part-time personnel, according to Manager Joe Young.

But Smith's concern is that one time "a structure fire hits and you've got multiple calls coming in" with only one dispatcher to handle everything.

To him, that's where having county dispatch "pays off" because it has the capability to immediately utilize additional manpower that's already on hand in the center.

"When you need them, they're there," Smith said.

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