Tough Turf Issues

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ERMA – In Parts I and II of this series about the new countywide emergency dispatch system, the Herald learned that new communications technologies have arrived in Cape May County.

Office of Emergency Management Director Martin Pagliughi believes that when it comes to emergency communications, the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

In this case, the parts (12 stand-alone municipal dispatch systems), cannot provide the same operational benefits that a centralized system can provide. The whole can also provide those benefits for less money. If some municipalities decline to join the whole, then all suffer.

Centralized dispatch that coordinates all first responders in the county was just a dream until concerned citizens from Cape Issues, the Board of Chosen Freeholders, and Pagliughi collaborated to use a feasibility study from Intertech Associates to help design the new system.

The concept also featured a shared-use agreement with Lower Township to refurbish its aging public safety building together with a needed County Emergency Communications Center at the Cape May County Airport. The center was formerly located in the basement of the County Library building on Mechanic Street, Court House.

The goals of the new system:

1.    Improve emergency response to fire, police, medical and disaster incidents to save lives and property.

2.   Accomplish the first goal by consolidating and centralizing those services while saving taxpayer dollars.

Resistance to Change – “Wait and See” Attitude

According to a survey conducted by Intertech Associates that was released in January 2014, municipal resistance to the system at the time of the survey was summarized as:

•    “Loss of control by local municipalities” was cited by all municipal governments except Wildwood and Wildwood Crest.

•    “Residents do not want a change" was also cited by many, except Middle Township, Stone Harbor and Wildwood.

•    "Dispatchers will not be familiar with all areas” they serve was cited by all municipal governments.

•    “Potential loss of jobs” was cited by four municipalities including Lower and Middle townships, Stone Harbor and Wildwood.

Those attitudes represented only a snapshot in time; opinions and leadership changes since the survey may have evolved since early 2014.

According to Pagliughi, most municipal leaders have a wait-and-see attitude. He has a couple of verbal agreements to participate, but those municipalities want to ensure that the system delivers all that is promised before committing their towns.

The wait-and-see attitude described by Pagliughi was best explained by Middle Township Police Chief Christopher Leusner who stated, “This is a good concept; I have visited both Monmouth and Camden county systems and I am impressed with what they have.”

Leusner added, “Where we are, we want to see how this thing goes over the next year or two.” He was concerned that as more towns join, the system might not be able to take the strain.

He was aware of the Intertech study, but felt that it had a serious flaw. “There is too much emphasis on using part-time dispatchers,” he stated. Leusner thinks that it is unrealistic to hire and train part-timers on a seasonal basis because of the expense and the difficulty finding people who want just part-time employment.

Pagliughi believes that many of the concerns expressed in the study are being addressed.

For example, dispatchers are being hired from the same pool of existing dispatchers who are familiar with the towns in the county. Some municipalities are preparing for the inevitable participation by purchasing equipment compatible with the Motorola equipment being used in the central dispatch model.

Municipalities are also looking, long-term, at allowing attrition through retirements and resignations to soften the impact on employees; some will be transferred into other openings within their local governments.

Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton sees “turf issues” between municipalities as another reason for the reluctant “wait-and-see” attitude among many municipalities.

This is why Thornton “is working to reduce resistance to the system for the good of the county.”

According to Pagliughi, some dispatch sharing occurs between Cape May, Cape May Point and West Cape May.

Also, “Avalon does dispatch for Stone Harbor,” and Wildwood serves West Wildwood. Pagliughi acknowledged that he sees less cooperation between police departments than he sees between fire and emergency medical services.

The reasons for this reluctance are complicated; although Pagliughi noted that some police departments use dispatchers for some non-dispatch related administrative tasks and that this internal sharing of tasks does not fit with the centralized dispatch model. 

Full Financial Benefit of Central Dispatch Requires Full Participation

The Herald obtained raw 2015 data from the Office of Emergency Management that provides municipality-specific cost savings estimates, should they decide to join the countywide system.

A sampling of those savings estimates indicated that Upper Township would save approximately $202,800 per year, Middle Township would save about $162,629, Wildwood Crest would save roughly $118,606 and Ocean City would save approximately $285,606.

According to Pagliughi, the data are “very rough estimate(s) from information that was available at the time (2015), on potential savings per municipality. These numbers will change as we get more detailed information on the call volume for each PSAP (municipality).”

According to Pagliughi, the process of bringing all Cape May County communities into the central dispatch system will take four to five months for each municipality.

This means that it will take a few years for the entire county to be rolled out to full participation. As Pagliughi reviewed the status of the system and pondered the operational/safety and tax saving opportunities of the new system if all municipalities participate, he spoke about the features he most admires about the system.

He noted the new mapping module that enables dispatch to know exactly where calls for help originate. He stated that global positioning system (GPS) technology will also permit dispatchers to track every police officer, firefighter or EMT to ensure the closest resource is dispatched to the scene. That also keeps first responders safe and in contact with dispatch at all times.

During a tour of the communications center, this reporter noticed two large-screen monitors above the dispatch positions. Those monitors will receive all live feed video signals from each participating community’s video monitoring cameras located in key locations such as boardwalks and other areas that would benefit from close attention.

As more communities join, more monitors will be added for more security throughout the county.

Pagliughi closed by saying, “If elected officials are serious about reducing the cost of their government, without reducing services, they need to follow one or more of the following methods: regionalization of services, consolidation of services, or privatization of services.”

The paradigm for countywide emergency communications has arrived in Cape May County. According to Pagliughi, it is up to all of the county's communities to ensure that the new paradigm becomes embedded in the daily routine of saving lives and property for all county residents in the future.

To contact Jim McCarty, email jmccarty@cmcherald.com.

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