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

Part II

June 23, 2010 - Safety of the public is government's first priority.

That's the word from Lake Orion Police Chief Jerry Narsh, who says yes, the Lake Orion Dispatch Center is costing Orion Township taxpayers an extra $61,000 over what Oakland County would charge for dispatch service, but he believes it's money well spent.

"You pay less, you get less," Narsh said. "We're a local, knowledge-based operation. Our dispatch knows our community."

Currently, emergency medical and fire dispatching are provided to Orion Township residents via contract with the Village of Lake Orion at a cost of $102,000. Oakland County Sheriff's deputies who staff the Orion substation are dispatched by the county.

Based on Orion Township Fire Department's calls for service, said Oakland County Undersheriff Mike McCabe, costs for county dispatch would run $38,000 per year, plus an additional $250 a month for a phone line connecting the township's radio base station to the county dispatch center.

But even with the cost savings, Narsh says much would be lost.

"If someone's having a heart attack, or choking or drowning, those seconds are the difference between life and death," he said. "Are you telling me there won't be a delay? It's very easy for (the Oakland County Dispatch Center) to be swamped with calls."

All Lake Orion dispatchers are trained in NIMS and ICS. They also get a first hand look at what they'll need to understand later.

"We drive our dispatchers all over the community, talk with fire personnel, hit the odd, quirky spots, difficult spots. The goal is that people getting the calls can visualize the spot they're sending responders to.

Orion Township Fire Chief Jeff Key said fire department dispatch costs are paid from the township's fire fund, which operates on a .9986 mil and draws no money from the township's general fund.

And while paying higher costs for local dispatch is a strain on his budget, Key agrees with Narsh: It's money well spent.

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.

Too much? Narsh and Key think so, and both said they've seen mistakes come out of the county's dispatch center, like discovering what was first thought to be a police matter was actually a medical emergency.

Then again, county dispatch said they've seen mistakes coming from Lake Orion. It happens.

"Everyone makes mistakes," Key said. "I can point to a mistake here, or a mistake at the county. Either way, in a crisis, I would rather be one of one, not one of 14 or 15."

In order to avoid mistakes and correct problems, Key said, communication is paramount; he and Narsh work closely, audio clips are reviewed when there's a problem, complaint forms are available to the public and corrections are made when necessary.

In addition, those involved with the Lake Orion dispatch center communicate weekly with the Oxford dispatch center, whom they back up—and vice versa—in the event of an emergency where one goes down.

And the dispatch center in Lake Orion doesn't just dispatch. They also alert the Orion Township DPW of all water and sewer emergencies, and issue all burn permits for both the village and the township.

In addition, with the dispatch center staffed 24/7/365, Narsh said, it's become known as the place to go for help of all sorts.

"There's so much more behind the scenes people don't think about," he said, noting people from across the area arrive at the center at all hours to escapes domestic abuse, get directions and everything in between. "People have learned this is a safe haven, a city of refuge."

That city of refuge would disappear if the dispatch center were no longer operating.

"Is it a tangible service? Yes it is," he said. "It's been going on so long that having it open and staffed is expected by people who need help."

But at the county dispatch center, 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 live here, we've grown up here, and we already dispatch the police," he said, noting many of the center's 47 employees live in the surrounding communities, including Lake Orion. "I came from a local department where you know the streets, you know the people – and that's a great thing. We know the streets and the people, too."

And, Maier said, the county doesn't approach the municipalities it dispatches with a one-size-fits-all philosophy.

On file in the center, he said, is a binder of detailed information for each community; maps, mile markers, internal phone lists, duty sheets, substation information, and so on, and each entity can define the way it wants dispatch to respond to certain circumstances.

"If it's a water main break, do you want us to call DPW? We will do that," he said.

And handling a large volume of calls, when they come, is not an issue, he said.

In January, Oakland County Central Dispatch invested about $500,000 in new 911 answering equipment, Maier said, including the newly-developed Positron VIPER Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) system.

The VIPER system, he explained, is based on line priority and connects caller with call taker, making response quicker and more efficient than having a call ring until someone answers it – 911 calls get top priority and the system monitors call-to-answer times, adding timer alarms after set amounts of rings.

According to Maier, Oakland County Central Dispatch is also the only center in Michigan that does both Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD) and Emergency Fire Dispatch (EFD), a protocol-driven system designed to make every second count in an emergency.

With EMD and EMF, call takers ask questions based on issues or symptoms the patient is having, send the call for dispatch and continue to obtain information.

Before hanging up, the caller receives direction on what to do "now," before help arrives, and may receive, for example, instructions for CPR, choking, and child birth.

The county center also has a full time quality assurance supervisor who evaluates and grades calls based on a number of criteria, Maier said.

But perhaps foremost is an efficiency issue—created by using one dispatch center for police and another for fire.

"We can deliver a coordinated law and fire response better than any single department handling opposite ends," he said. "It's a different process."

He uses an example from an incident involving a barricaded gunman in another community.

"You have to stage help," he said. "You have to have the police get there first, and have rescue standing by; close, but not too close so they're in danger."

At dispatch, the call taker stays on the line, types the run in, sends it immediately to radio dispatchers for police and fire.

While the police dispatcher and fire dispatcher are coordinating responses, she's giving them updated information while they're talking to their responders.

"When there's a major incident the dispatcher is dedicated to that incident until they're done," Maier said.

While Lake Orion is backed up by Oxford's dispatch center, Oakland County is backed up by Southfield.

Maier said it hasn't been an issue.

"We've got battery back up, and generators enough to last two weeks," he said.

The bottom line? Safety of the public is a top priority.

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

Lake Orion Review Editor
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