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Dispatched: A two-part comparison of 911 costs and services in the Orion area

Mel Maier, Chief of Sheriff’s Communications, talks with dispatcher Shawna Lafnear at Central Dispatch in Pontiac. Photo by Laura Colvin (click for larger version)
June 02, 2010 - Two options, two price tags and one big question: Are emergency medical and fire dispatch services provided by Lake Orion's Dispatch Center worth $61,000 more than those the county could provide?

Depends who answers the question. First, some facts.

Currently, emergency medical and fire dispatching are provided to Orion Township residents via contract with the Village of Lake Orion.

This year, dispatch services will dip about $102,000 from township coffers, a significant increase over recent years.

In July 2007, the Orion Township Board of Trustees unanimously agreed to continue contracting with the village for dispatch services through 2009.

That contract set township-to-village costs at $79,800 for 2007, $90,000 in 2008, and $99,600 in 2009.

In December 2009, the contract was renewed for one year, costing township taxpayers $102,000.

Meanwhile, township officials have repeatedly hinted at the likely need for a hike in the police millage in order to keep staffing at present levels.

The Oakland County Sheriff's Office, on the other hand, says its dispatch service would run the township $38,000 per year, plus an additional $250 per month for a special phone line, for a total of $41,000 annually.

The county currently handles all fire department and law enforcement dispatch in Addison, Brandon, Commerce, Highland, Independence and Springfield townships, as well as the cities of Rochester Hills, Wixom, Walled Lake and Wolverine Lake.

In addition, the county also handles law enforcement dispatch for another eight municipalities, including Orion Township -- the $102,000 bill from the village covers emergency medical and fire dispatch services, only -- not police.

But even with the cost savings, the township, over the years, has been reluctant to make the switch to Oakland County dispatch, citing factors like "consideration for the village" and interest in the more "customized service" provided by the village.

In the village, Police Chief Jerry Narsh oversees dispatch and said, yes, the service provided by the downtown Lake Orion center is indeed more expensive.

But, he points out, it also comes with localized service and additional advantages important to the community.

"Anytime you have a large corporation I'm sure they can come in with a much lower cost by providing lots of customers with a more limited service," Narsh said. "When it's 911, seconds matter."

But across town, at the Oakland County Sheriff's Office Central Dispatch Center in Pontiac, Mel Maier, Chief of Sheriff's Communications, believes he can offer a superior service -- and do it with a much more palatable price tag attached.

"We all know money is hard to come by," he said. "And 911 is a priority. We've realized we can save money and get more for our dollar by sharing services. Instead of cutting positions for fire and law enforcement, (the communities we dispatch for) are keep people responding on the street."

But, he explained, lower cost doesn't mean lower quality service.

"We can reduce, by 30-40 seconds, every call," Maier said. "If (Lake Orion) gets a 911 call, they ask 'name, address, phone number,' and 'what's going on?' If that call needs a police response, they transfer it to us and we ask the exact same questions. It's really inefficient."

It's an efficiency issue he says he can correct, delivering a coordinated law and fire response.

Next week, part II

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