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One center for all 911 calls yields benefits - and costs

Marion and Cedar Rapids push for consolidation; sheriff unconvinced

Emergency calls and dispatches now are handled out of three 911 centers in Linn County. In the one in Cedar Rapids, dispatchers work at their desks Dec. 5, 2017, at the Joint Communications Center at the Cedar Rapids Police Department. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Emergency calls and dispatches now are handled out of three 911 centers in Linn County. In the one in Cedar Rapids, dispatchers work at their desks Dec. 5, 2017, at the Joint Communications Center at the Cedar Rapids Police Department. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — A new consultant’s report has solidified Marion Police Chief Joseph McHale’s position that the three different 911 dispatch centers in Linn County should move toward a consolidation in just one facility.

“I’m a firm believer in this,” McHale said. “It’s my highest priority this year. It’s the absolute best thing to do for this entire region.”

McHale oversees one of Linn County’s three public safety access points. He has an ally in consolidation in Charlie McClintock, Cedar Rapids’ 911 director who manages the city’s center. However, Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner remains steadfast in his belief that a full consolidation is not in the county’s best interest. Among Gardner’s concerns is the cost.

“I don’t want to say my driving force behind this is it’s too expensive, but I certainly think it cannot be overlooked how expensive it is compared to what we have,” Gardner said. “I think the Linn County Sheriff’s Office dispatchers do a good job dispatching ... and they do that cost effectively.”

Last July, the county’s 911 board voted to pay for a feasibility study exploring whether consolidation was a viable option for the three centers. The final report from the Fairfax, Va.-based FE/Kimball was released in December and then presented to those most involved in January.

McHale sought the study. Marion employs just six dispatchers and they work solo an estimated 70 percent of the time — which McHale said is untenable.

The report determined Linn County, Cedar Rapids and Marion are “good candidates” for full or partial consolidation, with full consolidation offering “the most cost efficiencies and the highest return on investment.” A partial consolidation, which would entail Cedar Rapids or Linn County taking on Marion’s dispatch duties, is an option, but would not be as cost effective, the report states.

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The report notes that all three centers are understaffed, and that the Cedar Rapids and Linn County 911 locations are at risk due to flooding.

“Situational awareness” for emergencies that cut across jurisdictions or involve several agencies also is impeded by dispatchers from each center not working in the same space, the consultant reported.

“Communication and coordination must be handled via phone, intercom and radio rather than in person,” the report said. “The regional radio system allows for coordination of response after dispatch, but at the origin of a multiagency event among the county and one or more cities, additional time is necessary to inform and coordinate across multiple agencies for which dispatch does not originate from the same location.”

The report determined that a facility with 12 dispatch consoles, plus offices, storage space, restrooms, meeting rooms and other essentials could be about 3,600 square feet and built at an estimated cost of $2.2 million. But Gardner, McHale and McClintock agree that an actual facility probably would be larger and cost more.

“I think, depending on what you wanted, that cost could go up,” McClintock said.

Gardner said he didn’t think it was “unreasonable” to expect costs for such a facility to range from $5 to $10 million.

The facility could be run two different ways, according to the report. On would see a consolidated center operating under the umbrella of the Linn County Sheriff’s Office or the Cedar Rapids Police Department.

Another option is to create a stand-alone entity that would answer to the county Board of Supervisors, similar to what has been done with consolidated centers in Johnson and Scott counties. Such an entity also would have taxing authority, which could go toward funding the consolidated operations.

If the three entities decide to merge, they would be eligible for $600,000 from the state’s 911 consolidation grant program, McClintock said. The county 911 board also has put money aside to put toward consolidation.

As was the case when McHale proposed consolidation last year, Gardner remains opposed. A main reason entities consolidate is to allow for common radio communications across jurisdictions, he said — noting that Cedar Rapids, Linn County and Marion already have that capability, thanks to a $21 million radio system that went into place several years ago.

“That works very well and gave us what we needed,” he said. “At that time, we made an informed decision that we were not looking at combined facilities. ... If you can talk to each other, you don’t need to be sitting in the same room. That’s my belief today.”

Gardner said he also believes the consultants underestimated the number of dispatch consoles and personnel needed in a common center. He pointed out that he would have to hire staff at the Sheriff’s Office to perform many of the other duties now handled by dispatchers.

“Your savings are starting to go out the window,” he said.

Indeed, the report notes that it is a “common misunderstanding” that consolidating services saves money.

“Though it is possible that ultimately the county and the cities will experience an overall cost savings, and more importantly, vast increases in service efficiencies, the initial costs of consolidation are high,” it said.

Rather, savings come from not having to purchase dispatch equipment for three facilities. For instance, McClintock noted that a 911 switch — which answers the incoming calls — costs $250,000 to $300,000 and must be purchased every three to five years. Cedar Rapids, Marion and Linn County are currently each purchasing their own 911 switches.

“That’s one piece of equipment,” McClintock said, adding that there would be additional shared equipment. “If you had one center, obviously one center is buying equipment. That’s what they talk about in the long run.”

And, McHale notes, a shared facility would be more efficient in taking emergency calls and dispatching responders while decreasing the amount of transferred calls. That will be safer for citizens and responders alike, he said.

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“This is the biggest public safety issue I will deal with in my career,” he said. “I feel that strongly about it.”

Gardner said he also has concerns that, with a consolidated center governed by a separate entity, he’d lose oversight of his dispatchers.

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said that’s what he experienced when the Johnson County Joint Emergency Communication Center opened in 2010. At the time, a physical structure was needed to achieve common radio operations between law enforcement agencies in the county,

“Would I really have liked the ability to have us on one system and still had my own dispatch center? Yeah,” Pulkrabek said.

McHale said hopes to continue discussions on what a consolidated facility would look like, where it would be located and who would run it. He plans on taking a contingent of politicians to Scott County in the coming weeks to tour its consolidated facility. The three entities also have until July to apply for the consolidation grant.

McHale said he’s hoping to change Gardner’s mind on consolidation.

“I have faith he is going to do what he feels is right,” McHale said. “I’m going to do my best to convince him this is the best thing to do. He’s listening. I think that’s a very good sign.”

Gardner, who participated in the study despite his reservations, said he’ll continue to have a seat at the table as long as it makes sense.

“I think it’s only fair to the first responders and the taxpayers that we support ... that we continue into this process to see where it goes,” Gardner said. “I’m not sold on this yet. I have reservations as to whether or not this makes fiscal sense. ... I’m willing to continue to go forward with this process to see how it works out.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8238; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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