In Part I of the Herald’s series (May 30) on the new county central dispatch system, the Herald learned that a collaboration between Cape May County freeholders, a non-governmental group of community leaders called Cape Issues, Lower Township, and the director of the county Office of Emergency Management resulted in the acquisition of a 21st century public safety communications system.
The Herald also learned that the new centralized concept promises to improve overall safety and security by unifying and coordinating emergency services such as fire, police, and emergency medical services (EMS).
As a coastal community, Cape May County also faces threats related to coastal storms and flooding; according to public safety practitioners, a robust and modern multi-jurisdictional communications system is vital to providing needed disaster services quickly.
Part II of the series examines both human and financial benefits associated with central dispatch and how improved public safety can be achieved at reduced costs to taxpayers who live in municipalities that choose to participate in the system.
Shortly after the recent Parkland, Fla. school shooting, CNN reported that “confusion among agencies,” which responded to the Parkland shooting that claimed the lives of 17 children, was a contributing factor to the loss of life.
According to the story, dozens of 911 calls came into two different 911 systems at the onset of the incident. The early confusion that prevented a focused response to the incident revealed that officers could not communicate with each other based on non-interlocking communications systems.
According to a March 9 CNN story, police from two agencies “were unable to communicate with each other when attempts to merge radio traffic from the two agencies into a common radio channel failed.”
Lives also depend on efficient communications and fast emergency response when medical emergencies occur due to accidents or sudden illnesses.
According to the Cape May County Intertech study referenced in Part I, operational challenges in existing separate dispatch systems include” dead spots” that cause sporadic coverage breakdowns, “repeaters” that do not allow responders to hear their counterparts’ communications, and radio transmissions that sometimes interfere with frequencies from other jurisdictions.
According to county OEM Director Martin Pagliughi, with only a few exceptions, Cape May County municipalities do not currently share communications systems with each other.
This decentralized “stovepipe” system of multiple dispatch systems mirrors the situation encountered in Parkland, Fla.
Response Times/Operational Benefits
Most first responders and professional groups agree that fast response to emergency medical situations and fires can make all the difference in the world to victims.
A 2002 National Institute of Health study found that emergency calls where response times were less than five minutes were associated with improved survival when compared with calls where response times exceeded five minutes.
The National Fire Protection Association also found that on all EMS calls, a “turnout” time of one minute, and an additional four minutes or less for the subsequent arrival of a unit with first responder or higher level capability at an emergency medical incident is the optimum standard to be sought. According to the association, this objective should be met 90 percent of the time. Fast response time to fires is equally critical to saving lives and property.
The Boulder, Colo. Fire Department created a standard of six minutes or less for their first responders to arrive on the scene, seeking to meet that standard 90 percent of the time for all emergency calls.
Police response to reports of crimes in progress has been studied in several major cities.
The Detroit Police Department has targeted an eight-minute response time as a standard to achieve, although actual response times in many cities reached 12 to 13 minutes.
Practitioners such as Pagliughi believe that response times can be reduced when effective coordination between responding agencies through centralized dispatch is achieved.
County Costs/Savings Projection
Although operational efficiency can provide increased levels of safety and security to county residents, costs will dictate whether or not the county and member municipalities can afford to invest in improved safety. According to Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton, the new Emergency Management Communications Center (EMCC) at Cape May County Airport will cost $6 million.
This cost includes refurbishing the current Lower Township Public Safety building, plus hardware and software costs.
Lower Township is consolidating its need for a new Public Safety Building with the county’s need for a new EMCC. In this model, by co-locating both functions at one facility at the airport, according to Thornton, both the township and the county will save $2 million by sharing this complex.
Lower will also save $165,000 per year in operational costs because of the new sharing agreement. Thornton noted that municipalities which participate in central dispatch would realize similar cost savings by reducing current workforce costs to operate separate systems as well as costs for equipment upgrades that will shortly be necessary as every agency in the county standardizes equipment to avoid communication breakdowns caused by incompatible frequencies and equipment.
Municipal Costs/Savings Opportunities
Pagliughi noted that 911 call frequency would determine the cost to each municipality; the more calls routed to a municipality through the center, the more that entity would pay.
“This is the fairest shared cost system for municipalities of all sizes,” he said. He added that as more municipalities join, the cost per call would fall and all municipalities would pay less.
The Intertech Associates study estimates that a central “single site” county consolidation model shows an overall $16 million savings to county residents within the first five years.
According to Peter Jespersen of Cape Issues, there are approximately 59 full-time and 40 part-time dispatchers serving all municipalities in Cape May County.
According to the Intertech feasibility study, the projected manpower needs to staff the new central system is 11-13 call takers, four to seven dispatchers, with a total staffing requirement including supervision of 21 to 34 positions.
Pagliughi is unsure that call taker positions would be necessary going forward, but agreed that reducing personnel costs is a key ingredient in saving taxpayers money. These staff reductions, often through attrition, plus economies of scale achieved regarding equipment and training costs represent another critical ingredient to providing tax relief for municipalities.
Part III of the series on central dispatch will focus on gaining the participation of all county municipalities in order to achieve maximized public safety benefit from the central system, and reduce the burden on individual municipalities and taxpayers.