Nickels Or Pickles?

A fundamental rule of communication is that the quality of information depends on the path it travels. Direct is better than circuitous. Primary sources are better than secondary or tertiary sources. We learn this as kids by playing the “telephone” game, passing a word or phrase ear-to-ear around a circle transforming nickels into pickles, church steeples into birch people, and giving everyone a good laugh along the way. So, a proposal making the rounds of Newtown’s public safety departments and agencies to move the town’s Emergency Communications Center at 3 Main Street to a regional center 25 miles away in Prospect seems, on the face of it, to violate this basic rule. Because, as Newtown knows all too well, the quality of information in emergencies is no laughing matter, the plan has drawn a lot of questions, many of which still have no definitive answers.

Proponents of regional dispatch centers cite cost savings generated by economies of scale. Detractors argue that remote dispatching results in delays in handling calls and longer emergency response times. But a regional system that depends for nearly a third of its funding on ephemeral state grants and would require extra town expenditures to keep the local police station accessible to the public 24/7 may not be the most efficient way to provide dispatching services in the long run. The potential savings we have heard about to date are all estimates and relatively low numbers — $150,000 or so. Yet the technical delays in service of a dispatching system using dedicated phone lines and the local radio repeater network would be negligible, measured in milliseconds. Dispatch proficiency would be a function of personnel training, just as it is now. Solid information on both cost savings and the proficiency of remote dispatchers has yet to emerge in this debate.

What we do know is that the Northwest Connecticut Public Safety Communications Center in Prospect currently serves 20 small, mostly volunteer, emergency services and only one police department, Middlebury, a town with less than a third of the area and less than a quarter of the population of Newtown. The addition of Newtown’s police department, five fire companies, ambulance corps, and Newtown Underwater Search And Rescue will transform the regional service into an operation that is far busier and more complicated than it is now. Assessing the cost and efficacy of that hypothetical entity is essentially a guessing game.

Seventeen months ago, Newtown’s dispatch center and emergency services were put to a wrenching test, and they did not buckle. The work done at 3 Main Street in the Newtown’s Emergency Communications Center was exemplary, earning it the Outstanding Call Center of the Year Award last September from the national E911 Institute. Clearly, Newtown does not have a qualitative problem to solve at its communications center. Like all municipalities, though, the town does have its money problems. We are not sure, however, the best place to solve those problems is at the other end of a 911 call. This is one area where we should be concerned exclusively about saving lives and not saving dollars. Nickels or pickles? Let’s not lose track of what we are talking about.

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