By Guillermo Fuentes
Searching for ways to provide more useful and well-organized public safety services, local decisionmakers turn to wide-scale changes meant to streamline and enhance emergency response services, including the consolidation of emergency dispatch operations.
Local leaders know that consolidating services might present an opportunity for finding efficiencies. Before doing so, however, they must ask some specific questions to determine whether emergency dispatch center consolidation will be the right solution in their communities, and what obstacles they might encounter.
Evaluating the costs, benefits, and risks of a consolidation is absolutely vital before embarking on an effort that has long-term implications for how emergency services operate.
Predictably, perceived cost savings is usually the primary motive to consolidate dispatch centers. The cost to upgrade technology and infrastructure, train employees on new equipment and protocols, meet accreditation standards, and continuously improve emergency communications is often too immense for one communications center to bear.
Consolidating several centers and distributing those costs across jurisdictions makes such improvements feasible—but only if the effort truly consolidates operations, management, technology, and personnel.
If the consolidation is merely a cohabitation, with everyone under one roof but still maintaining separate operations, the cost savings will be minimal and won’t outweigh the negative impacts.
Poor service may also lead city and county leaders to bring multiple dispatch centers together under one roof. Populous cities often have several centers answering calls in the same area, leading to multiple handoffs, which are inefficient.
When a caller has to provide crucial information to numerous call-takers and wait for each handoff, the consequences range from dissatisfied residents to potentially harmful delays in response.
Real Advantages and Disadvantages
Successful dispatch consolidation can result in improved performance and caller satisfaction, allow for equipment and technological upgrades, and help streamline operations. In the ideal scenario, the up-front costs of new infrastructure and operational changes are offset over time and outweighed by improvements in performance and enhanced public safety.
But many emergency communications center consolidations have not succeeded. Some have entailed immense expenditures of money, time, and other resources without achieving better outcomes.
If any one of several critical factors—ranging from determining realistic performance measures to preparing for possible staffing issues—is unaccounted for in evaluating a consolidation, the results won’t meet expectations.
In addition, everyone involved must be willing to relinquish some degree of autonomy and influence, and adapt to newly shared protocols and work styles, to successfully unite numerous call centers.
Unique Needs and Principles
Consolidation of emergency communication centers typically brings together several separate entities with similar missions but unique needs. Fire, EMS, and law enforcement are united in their effort to keep communities safe, but each requires different technologies and support systems that must be considered when upgrading technology, implementing new protocols, and training staff as part of a consolidation.
Fire. The dispatch needs for the fire service are relatively straightforward. During calls, the call-taker must know the location and size of the fire, and if it is in a residential or industrial structure.
The fire service requirements lack of complexity is countered with the need for speed. Quickly attaining information about a fire and dispatching vehicles is crucial to ensuring the best outcome. Staffing needs are relatively low.
EMS. EMS dispatch consists of several fast-moving parts. As information from a caller comes through, the call-taker is recording incident information to determine the level of medical response needed.
The call-taker must then decide what resources are appropriate for each call and deploy them efficiently. In high-performance EMS systems, the dispatchers are also accessing historical data and proactively moving resources to known high-volume areas to try to reduce response times. In these systems, the dispatcher must be able to track all vehicles and assign the closest unit across jurisdictions.
Law Enforcement. In law enforcement dispatch, officer safety and legal documentation are top priorities. The initial 911 call and dispatch can be included in future legal proceedings, so it’s critical that dispatchers and the CAD are able to accurately record call details.
The CAD also serves as a massive records management system. When dispatchers enter a name or address in the system, they can find relevant historical information that they can share with officers in the field in real time to improve situational awareness.
Evaluate Several Factors Early On
When planning a consolidation, leaders must consider several elements early in the process to ensure that the specific needs of the system and the community are met.
Facility. Is there an existing facility that can house a consolidated center? If so, does it need to be remodeled in any way? And if one doesn’t exist, can you build a new one?
In most cases, consolidation will require a new or modified space, which will contribute significantly to up-front consolidation costs. There are also long-term benefits, however, that may pay off in ways that don’t show up on the balance sheet.
A new facility provides an opportunity for improved working conditions. Exercise rooms, showers, a kitchen, and training facilities can improve working conditions and reduce turnover.
A dispatch floor with an adjacent equipment room can improve operations. Though difficult to quantify, these ancillary benefits should be a part of the evaluation process.
Dispatchers who monitor a jail, act as building receptionists, handle bond or permit traffic, or deliver paper warrants to officers have unique infrastructure needs that need to be considered more closely.
Technology. Does the current radio system have sufficient capacity and coverage to support a consolidation? Is there a common CAD, radio, and 911 telephone system for all participants to use?
If not, a consolidation will likely warrant new or upgraded technology, which represents a major cost and time investment for implementation and training.
If a dispatch center is overdue for technological upgrades right away, especially to meet the needs of Next Generation 911 and FirstNet, then a consolidation may be a beneficial way to spread necessary costs and broaden the impact of any new technology.
Operations and human resources. In order to get real cost savings, a consolidation will take advantage of each individual team member’s capacity and optimize it to reduce the amount of staff needed to perform effectively. This means truly merging all operations into one entity, rather than keeping current silos.
As your team evaluates how consolidation will impact dispatch methods and service levels, you will also need to account for changes to pay scale, training needs, and any new staffing that may be needed.
Three Critical Areas
While evaluating these elements is vital and requires advanced planning, three other critical areas, often overlooked in the early conversations between officials, will have the greatest impact on a successful consolidation.
1. Establish a governance and dispute resolution model. During a consolidation, communication centers of varying sizes come together, usually diminishing any one manager’s level of autonomy.
Discuss a new governance and dispute resolution model up-front because this can make or break the new communications center in the future.
Communities and dispatch centers of different sizes will inevitably vary in their contribution—of budget, staff, expertise—to a consolidation. Establish each leader’s area of responsibility and a method for resolving conflicts.
Elected and appointed officials at the highest levels must be involved in these discussions early on. Otherwise, they’ll only need to be brought in later, when conflicts arise and no process exists to manage them.
2. Determine cost sharing. Fire, EMS, and law enforcement dispatch systems have varying costs according to their unique technological and capital requirements. Each community joining the consolidation will also vary in its needs.
Determine the metrics used to allocate costs and make sure all parties agree. Reach an understanding and a consensus on how to account for these variances—and any future changes—before moving forward on consolidation efforts.
3. Determine performance metrics. The arguably most important factor to consider when pursuing a consolidation is how to measure its success—or failure. It’s critical to gather accurate qualitative and quantitative metrics before the consolidation begins. A system may suggest that it is reaching certain levels, when in fact it is not.
While gathering the data, focus on measuring aspects of performance that are important to your organization, rather than simply numbers in a report. A few performance metrics that may demonstrate the impact of an emergency communications system consolidation include:
• Call volume.
• Time to answer the phone.
• Time to process the phone call.
• Time to transfer to secondary PSAP.
• Number of call handoffs.
• Full-time equivalents required to meet standards.
Before consolidation, look at how the operation is currently performing—and whether it’s meeting desired targets or national standards.
Consolidation is not the answer for every emergency communications center. It can, however, help achieve broader citywide and countywide public safety goals and may be a viable solution after a thorough evaluation.
Guillermo Fuentes is a senior partner, Fitch & Associates, Platte City, Missouri (email@example.com). He previously served as the chief administrative officer, Niagara Regional Police Agency, Ontario, Canada, and associate director of EMS for the Niagara Region. Fitch & Associates is an ICMA Strategic Partner.