Fire officials are expressing a range of concerns about a proposal to shift the town's radio dispatching for emergency 911, police, fire, and ambulance calls from the Newtown Emergency Communications Center at 3 Main Street to the Northwest Connecticut Public Safety Communication Center, Inc, at Route 68 in Prospect, which is about 25 miles away.
Recently, Rob Manna of Newtown Hook & Ladder, who is chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners, and Bill Halstead, who is the town fire marshal and the Sandy Hook fire chief, toured the Prospect center to learn about that organization.
The Board of Fire Commissioners oversees town funding for the five local volunteer fire companies – Hook & Ladder, Dodgingtown, Hawleyville, Sandy Hook, and Botsford. The board also oversees those five fire companies’ use of town-owned equipment.
In a July 28 letter to First Selectman Pat Llodra, Mr Manna, writing on behalf of the seven-member Board of Fire Commissioners, stated that board members have discussed the proposal to move dispatching to Prospect during their past several meetings.
Mr Manna wrote that one of fire officials’ biggest concerns, which remains unanswered, is how the Prospect center would dispatch Newtown emergency calls without a “100 percent fail-safe” system, if communications lines between Newtown and Prospect were compromised either by a storm or by a motor vehicle accident in Newtown or in any town between Newtown and Prospect where the dispatching communications lines would be located.
Currently, the exposure for damage to the town’s emergency radio system lies within Newtown’s boundaries, he wrote. Shifting dispatching to Prospect would increase the exposure for potential damage to the communications lines lying between Newtown and the Prospect communications center, according to Mr Manna.
A storm outside of Newtown somewhere along those communications lines could compromise Newtown’s emergency communications, he wrote.
Mr Manna observed that the Prospect center appears to be operating at capacity in terms of space and manpower. In view of that, he asks what the Prospect center would need to do to accommodate the increase in calls resulting from its handling of Newtown’s emergency communications.
Mr Manna also asks whether the Prospect center would explain how it would provide equal or better dispatching for Newtown than Newtown now receives.
Also, he asks for information on how and where a larger Prospect facility would be created to cover Newtown’s communications needs.
Mr Manna asked what type of contract for service Newtown would have with the Prospect center, including the term of that contract. Also, he wants to know the costs and the cost increases stemming from such a contract.
Additionally, Mr Manna wants to know what safeguards for Newtown would be in place if the Prospect center cannot perform required services for Newtown and Newtown has no dispatching backup plans or capabilities to dispatch its own emergency communications.
Also, Mr Manna asks what cost savings, if any, Newtown would realize over the term of a contract. Additionally, he wants to know how much money it would cost for the town to make the dispatching switch from Newtown to Prospect.
Mr Manna asks whether shifting Newtown’s dispatching elsewhere would be would be subject to competitive public bidding or to “requests for proposals.”
The chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners notes that fire officials have suggested that Newtown become a regional dispatching hub for smaller, surrounding towns in this area.
Because Newtown has relatively more dispatching calls than other nearby towns, making Newtown a regional dispatching hub could offer a solution to the proposed consolidation of the 911 system, he writes.
Mr Manna notes that the Board of Fire Commissioners has not received information from the state regarding when such 911 system consolidation might be mandated.
First Selectman Responds
In a statement responding to the Board of Fire Commissioners’ concerns, Mrs Llodra wrote, “I am committed to the process established by the Board of Selectmen to analyze whether regionalizing dispatch is in the best interest of our community, vis a vis public safety and economics.”
“Any independent comments I make risk creating the perception that the outcome is pre-determined and that the Board of Selectmen’s discussion is superfluous. The process of review began many months ago with the Board of Selectmen identifying an ad hoc committee to do research and report back with findings and recommendations,” she added.
“We felt an obligation to address the issue, to do our due diligence, given the contention that consolidation of dispatch services would result in significant cost-savings for the community,” Mrs Llodra writes.
“The Board of Selectmen will review the letter from the Board of Fire Commissioners...The issue of dispatch is currently under the domain of the Board [of Selectmen]. That body will review all the information, check the facts, and then make a determination [on] whether or not to forward the question to the Legislative Council,” Mrs Llodra writes.
“I can say on behalf of the Board of Selectmen that public safety trumps everything and change in the communications system would occur only if there is no compromise in safety, partnered with significant savings. The Board [of Selectmen] will pass the question on to the Legislative Council only if those two standards are met,” she adds.
“Ultimately, the Legislative Council has the responsibility and authority to determine if local dispatch services are to be 'outsourced' or privatized,” she writes.
Town officials have been reviewing that dispatching proposal for the past few months. A two-member ad hoc panel that is studying the proposal is expected to submit a report on it with recommendations to the selectmen.
Police Commission members have generally expressed skepticism that moving dispatching to Prospect would be beneficial.
The Newtown Police Union has said it opposes moving dispatching to Prospect, charging that it would damage the quality of dispatching.
The town dispatchers' union similarly opposes the proposed change, noting that its nine members' town jobs would end if the dispatching move is made. The private, nonprofit Prospect center is nonunionized.
Newtown Volunteer Ambulance Corps Chief Mike Collins has said that local dispatching works well, in questioning the need to move it to Prospect.