State officials serving on the Municipal Opportunities and Regional Efficiencies (MORE) Commission, a panel convened by House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey (D-Hamden), announced a number of proposals May 23 that could help municipalities cut costs and ultimately save taxpayer dollars.
Among those ideas was a call to regionalize or centralize emergency communications from the multitude of separate centers throughout the state to just a handful of facilities. This proposal appears to have the potential to gain significant traction in the next legislative session, according to state officials.
But long before the MORE commission was even appointed, Newtown Emergency Communications Director Maureen Will and First Selectman Pat Llodra were working on options and exploring the possibility of consolidating local dispatch duties into a regional center.
For a brief period, Newtown even considered a bid to develop a regional center, but that gave way to an idea to merge into a regional facility at the Danbury Police Headquarters. When that idea was first floated, it would have created the first instance under a Connecticut program that provides financial incentives to towns for regionalizing emergency, fire, and police dispatching services.
While that proposal also faltered, the idea to consolidate local emergency dispatching has continued to progress.
Prospect Center Identified
Following the MORE commission’s announcement, Ms Will confirmed to The Bee that the town has identified a long-established regional call center in Prospect as the likely destination if the town follows through on the likelihood of a consolidation.
That facility, Northwest Connecticut Public Safety Communication Center, or Northwest CMED, has been serving a growing number of communities and emergency responders since 1975. Mrs Llodra and Ms Will both say this move could makes economic sense on several levels, while preserving the professionalism local dispatchers have displayed — particularly during recent devastating storms and the 12/14 tragedy and its aftermath.
The move would not compromise local public safety or response times, Ms Will said And any local dispatcher willing to make a move would be welcome to apply for shifts at Northwest CMED, preserving localized expertise among its staff.
Ms Will also points out that beside herself, only two of the nine front line dispatchers working in Newtown today reside here.
“We’re dealing with people’s jobs here, so obviously emotions run high in any discussion of the issue,” Ms Will said. “But I know from researching this issue in the state and nationally that any regional center would value locally familiar people on their team, as long as they meet the standards of the hiring agency.”
Besides the potential for hiring some or all of the current Newtown dispatchers, Ms Will said those individuals could enjoy greater opportunities for advancement and pay increases that they could never access locally.
“There will be opening for supervisory jobs, training officers, and other opportunities,” she said. “My experience is that unless it is the acquisition of services in an extremely small town, personnel always grows when a consolidation occurs at a regional center.”
Mrs Llodra said she is very sensitive to concerns about a “dark” police station — a scenario where someone might arrive at the police headquarters needing help and finding all personnel out of the facility on the road or responding to calls. But she and Ms Will both believe there are relatively simple “work arounds” to ensure at least one person is available to greet and address walk-ins on a 24/7 basis.
“We are at the point where a consolidation of emergency services makes sense, and does not appear to have any negative implications on public health or safety,” Mrs Llodra said. “It’s a plan we will continue to pursue as we have been doing for some time now.”
Why Consolidate 911?
A few days ahead of the MORE panel’s recommendations, its members heard from Federal Reserve Economist Yolanda Kodrzycki, who targeted emergency dispatch consolidation in her presentation.
According to a report by The Connecticut Mirror, Ms Kodrzycki said communities like Newtown can enjoy the greatest economic benefits by consolidating services that lend themselves to economies of scale. She pointed out that today, there are 111 different emergency dispatch operations that receive 911 calls in Connecticut.
As far as this service goes, Connecticut is the fourth-most fragmented state in the nation, Ms Kodrzycki said.
Other small states have used as few as eight regional call centers, and not only cut operating costs in half, but used it as an opportunity to upgrade equipment and improve call-handling. Ms Will noted that while Vermont still transfers some emergency calls to localized dispatch facilities, it maintains a single public safety answering point or PSAP.
“I truly believe from plans we have discussed so far, if Newtown goes to a regional center it would provide top quality services on par with what residents already receive,” she said. “And long before a move is implemented, we would be sure all our local policies and protocols would be assimilated.”
After 38 years in law enforcement with a concentration on emergency communications — and ten years as a career focus — Ms Will understands it is hard for a community to make a break from localized services like dispatching. But she is confident a move to regionalize will “cut costs without putting public safety in jeopardy.”
Currently, the Newtown center is facing an immediate and mandated upgrade to its technology that could cost $25,000 or more, Ms Will said. And all told, its staffing and benefits costs exceed $714,000.
While the state is currently committed to providing a $250,000 allowance to Newtown if it centralized its emergency dispatching, if consolidation mandates are legislated in the 2013-14 session that incentive would either be greatly reduced or disappear altogether, Mrs Llodra said.
Newtown can look to its neighboring towns of Roxbury, Woodbury and Oxford for evidence of how a transition might play out, as Northwest CMED currently handles dispatch duties for those municipalities. And this summer, the facility will begin handling its first assignment of police dispatching for the Town of Middlebury.
Coincidentally, in its first year of operations, the center that became Northwest CMED handled the same number of calls the Newtown dispatch center currently manages — about 8,000. Today the Prospect-based center fields 100,000 911 and CMED medical dispatching calls, while employing about two dozen full- and part-timers.
Where Newtown 911 Calls May Go: Northwest CMED At A Glance
Newtown officials are currently considering centralizing emergency communications to Northwest Connecticut Public Safety Communication Center, or Northwest CMED. The Prospect-based center fields 100,000 911 and CMED medical dispatching calls, while employing about two dozen full- and part-timers.
According to its website, the regional CMED (Coordinated Medical Emergency Direction) center serves the 22 towns and cities of the Central Naugatuck Valley and Housatonic Valley subregions of Northwest EMS Region V, with coordinated ambulance communications to the five area hospitals.
Northwest CMED works closely with local EMS providers and the staff of local hospital emergency departments to provide communication systems, enhancing patient care by connecting paramedics or EMTs in the field with an emergency department physician or nurse to coordinate patient care.
The center serves nine communities with 911 PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point) service, along with dispatching and coordinating services. Also, 911 calls from more than 40 cellular telephone sites are also answered by Northwest CMED, which covers the major highway interchange of I-84 and Route 8.
The communication center is staffed 24/7, with a minimum of two highly trained State of Connecticut Certified telecommunicators experienced in public safety. Currently, Northwest CMED is serving as a primary E-911 public safety answering point (PSAP) for the towns of Beacon Falls, Bethlehem, Oxford, Prospect, Roxbury, and Woodbury and the secondary E-911 PSAP for Middlebury, the Borough of Naugatuck, and Seymour.
In addition to 911 PSAP duties, the communication center also handles all emergency communications for the fire departments and EMS providers in those six primary E-911 communities, along with Naugatuck Ambulance Service, Middlebury Volunteer Fire Department, and Seymour Fire and Ambulance.
This summer the center will take on its first police dispatch duties for the Town of Middlebury.
A state-of-the-art computer aided dispatch system enhances Northwest’s operational capabilities both on a daily basis as well as under extreme circumstances such as natural disaster, mass casualty incident, or national crisis. The center utilizes emergency medical dispatch protocols on all 911 and EMS calls for assistance, offering prearrival instructions to the caller, and has the capability to transmit and receive on an Interoperability Radio Network, supplied by Connecticut’s Division of Homeland Security.