COURT HOUSE - The public gathered at Atlantic Cape Community College's Court House campus for a Cape Issues-sponsored discussion of the county’s ongoing efforts to establish a centralized emergency dispatch system.
Cape Issues is a non-partisan group of county residents who united to promote attention and input on issues of concern to the county’s wellbeing.
Beginning 11 years ago with three members, the group boasts 15 members and an agenda that ranges from economic and workforce development to infrastructure investment; and from educational opportunities and improvement to enriching county lives through art and cultural involvement.
A Cape Issues member, Peter Jespersen, was a featured speaker at the forum, along with the guest presenter Martin Pagliughi, Cape May County Emergency Management coordinator and Avalon mayor.
Why Central Dispatch?
A 2014 study by Intertech Associates said a central dispatch system would save county municipalities an estimated $16 million in the first five years.
“The potential for savings are significant,” Pagliughi said. He estimates that Lower Township, which joined the system, will save over $200,000 a year. “Wildwood Crest joined in March and should see a savings of $100,000 to $150,000,” he added.
The county municipalities currently use 12 separate dispatching networks. Difficulties abound.
In many cases, smaller municipalities cannot afford to have more than one dispatcher on duty per shift, making it difficult to deal immediately and fully with each emergency call.
“Call volume to emergency dispatch has skyrocketed,” Pagliughi said, holding up his cell phone. “Cell phones mean that where a dispatcher may have received one or two calls related to an emergency in the past, he will get a dozen or more now.”
Pagliughi reminded “each call needs to be answered because the tenth call may be a different emergency.”
Pagliughi and Jespersen, who was involved with State Police Emergency Management for 17 years, both agreed that best practices call for a minimum of two dispatchers at all times, a target many county municipalities cannot meet.
Pagliughi pointed out that much more than money is at stake in the development of central dispatch. “A central system is an enhancement to public safety,” he said.
Central dispatch allows for uniform technology giving all emergency responders across the county the ability to communicate. Pagliughi noted that reviews of active shooter situations in Parkland, Fla. and Sandy Hook, Conn. showed that communication problems among responding law enforcement agencies prevented the best possible response to the emergencies.
The promise of central dispatch is uniformity for communications, pooled financial resources that can support the latest technology, multiple dispatchers on duty and all equally cross-trained for police, fire and emergency medical service situations and an ability to meet evolving state and federal standards.
Pagliughi spoke of technology available at a centralized center that allows a dispatcher to pinpoint a cell phone caller within 150 feet of where the individual makes the call. He described computer systems that allow dispatchers to direct responders through rural areas where turns would easily be missed.
He outlined training regimens that allow dispatchers to walk callers through responses to emergencies while awaiting the arrival of rescue squads, all of this possible while other dispatchers are available to respond to incoming calls.
Are We There Yet?
Cape May City Mayor Clarence Lear was present and spoke of the difficulties smaller municipalities have hiring and training dispatch personnel.
He said maintaining adequate staffing, especially in the summer when the city’s population swells more than ten-fold. Yet, central dispatch, for all its potential benefits, takes time to implement.
“We can take on one municipality at a time over a four to six month period,” Pagliughi said. He described the process of bringing the municipality and all of its records into the central dispatch technology systems. Even when dispatchers from the municipality are hired as part of the central dispatch staff, the hiring and training process takes time.
Currently, Lower Township and Wildwood Crest are part of the system with Stone Harbor and Avalon soon to follow.
The system is a voluntary one. Migration is not mandatory.
The benefits need to sell themselves. Even then, the pace of migration means that it may take six years to have a fully county-wide system in place, Pagliughi said.
What Will It Cost?
Pagliughi noted that he and others in county leadership recognized early that the movement to central dispatch had to discourage municipalities from waiting until early users “paid for the system.” They also knew that the financing mechanism needed to take into account the summer volume in the island communities.
He said that a tax based on ratables was problematic given the high ratables in the island communities where, for most of the year, the use of central dispatch would be low.
What he and others did was develop an algorithm that factored in a number of variables to create a cost per call. In effect, a usage fee in which municipalities would pay based on call volume averaged out for the year and then further averaged for a three-year period to flatten out unusual spikes.
The calculation is done on expected participation so it does not penalize the first municipalities to join the system nor does it reward the last.
Pagliughi pointed to a community like Avalon which would see low usage of a central dispatch system several months in the year only to experience a dramatic rise in call volume during the summer. “It will average out for them,” he said.
The hope is that the central dispatch will operate much like a self-liquidating utility. What it costs to run the system will be broken down into the per-call fee, meaning that collections from municipalities should equal expenses.
There will be significant savings, Pagliughi promised, but “I cannot say what any given municipality will do with the savings.”
Cape Issues and Its Agenda
Part of what this forum was about was how a group of concerned citizens can come together to identify issues, campaign for those issues and see results.
An earlier report on central dispatch in Cape May County in 2008 failed to interest the 16 municipalities and their governing bodies. Cape Issues, formed in 2011, began its advocacy for central dispatch soon after.
The group became one more advocate for the benefits of a central dispatch system. That advocacy and the arrival of Pagliughi as emergency management coordinator in 2012 both played their roles in the allocation of funds for the 2014 study. As Pagliughi tells it, he actually identified unused grant funds that “they didn’t even know they had.”
Central dispatch, for all its importance, is only one of the concerns on the agenda of Cape Issues. The group promises additional forums to invite public input.