I was watching Tim Skubick’s “Off the Record” show this morning and the topic of consolidation of dispatch centers came up. The law makers talk like they are convinced that this is a no brainer. I would suggest that they are so convinced this is a good idea because they haven’t done much research regarding what the possible downsides of such an action might be. I have looked at this idea and am familiar with quite a few of the intricacies of this idea based on our experience in Oakland County.
I’m honored to serve my colleagues in Oakland County as Chair of two committees: OakWIN inter-operational radio and the Public Safety Answering Point Coordinators. I have served both for nearly 10 years. While we have many communities both large and small in Oakland County, we have used technology to create a “virtual consolidation.” By that I mean that we share a radio system and our data systems including report writing, computer aided dispatch, mobile computers, digital fingerprinting, mugshots and much, much more. We save money by purchasing together (our radio system is a 5000 radio system), using the same support personnel and development funded by our fees. It amazes me how much technology we get for such a small amount of money. We could never afford to support this much technology on our own. The system is known as CLEMIS (Courts and Law Enforcement Management Information System). It is 40 years old and is governed by an Advisory Board of police chiefs. It is the largest and oldest consortium of its kind in the nation.
What does this have to do with dispatch? When we investigated dispatch consolidation in Oakland County some years ago, we discovered two major roadblocks:
1. Who will staff the stations without dispatchers?
2. Who will watch short term prisoners?
Our community like others was not keen on the idea of closing our station at night and on weekends. The dispatchers are mostly the only persons in the facility. Our officers and command officers are out on the road most of the time. We want them to respond quickly to any call and that happens best when our forces are deployed in the field. Citizens seeking to do business with the police would need to call from a phone outside the building to the consolidated dispatch center who would send an officer to the building. I hope that it is not a person who is seeking refuge from a violent spouse or a road rage incident. There simply won’t be any person in the building. In Auburn Hills, although we may not have an officer in the building, we can at least operate our doors remotely and allow a person in the building and control access while officers are responding.
Secondly, where will the short-term prisoners go? We have a 4 hour lockup which means that we hold prisoners for short periods of time. We do that by video observation using the only part of our facility which is 24×7: dispatch. Frequently the sheriff’s jails are overcrowded and can’t accept more prisoners. Or for some communities the jail is a long distance away taking officers from their communities for the long trip to the jail and back for a short-term hold waiting to go to court. Imagine that for South Lyon–to Pontiac and back to their local court. In rush hour traffic or bad weather that could take quite awhile.
Lastly, many communities are concerned about quality of service. Large bureaucracies often don’t have accountability. Right now if a citizen is treated poorly by our center, I can go into dispatch and correct it right away. No so much in a much larger organization. In one of my former lives I worked in a community that consolidated and then found that they were unhappy with the consolidation when the larger entity did not treat their citizens as they wanted. They withdrew and joined another community that was more like them in organizational culture and that partnership has lasted nearly 20 years.
Quite a few Oakland County communities have consolidated dispatch services on their own, with their neighbors. They found that they could save money and could still serve their citizens well with an organizational culture that meets their needs. City Manager Pete Auger wrote about legal impediments to consolidation in his blog Friday.
I think it is important to think about why we keep our dispatch centers–not because we want to waste the money of our taxpayers but because we want to deliver the best quality services that we can. And maybe there is more than one type of consolidation: physical or virtual. Both have the potential to save money if well done. And both have the potential to serve their communities well.
Law makers should take time to study the issues.