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Consolidated Dispatch: Embraced or Feared?
Author: Walter "Budge" Currier and James "Mike" Dye, AECOM
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
Consolidated Dispatch Centers are not a new concept: -- some have operated successfully for more than 40 years. With this history of success, why does the idea of consolidation strike fear in the hearts of some police and fire chiefs but garner praise from others? This article focuses on misconceptions that create barriers to consolidating dispatch/communication center operations.
Over the past few decades, the idea of consolidating dispatch/communication center operations has been both embraced and feared by decision-makers. Throughout this article we use the term “dispatch center” to refer to the communication centers that perform dispatch operations and serve as a primary or secondary Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) for their communities. After completing dozens of consolidation studies and working with numerous county, city and state agencies on emergency communications issues, we have observed cycles of embracing and fearing the consolidated dispatch center. This generally can be traced to periods over the last few decades when the barriers to consolidation were outweighed by political will, financial necessity and technology advancements.
Types of consolidation
Before discussing barriers to consolidation, we need to identify the different types of consolidation. One thing is clear: consolidation does not affect the number of calls for service, but it may affect how they are dispatched, and it also may have an impact on the associated costs. Several types of consolidation are discussed below, and each has the potential to meet the needs of city, county and state agencies the dispatch center serves. Each of the consolidation types below has advantages and disadvantages. The type of consolidation chosen will depend on several factors, including the political will of the agencies involved, the overall goal of consolidation and the availability of funding.
Full consolidation: All existing dispatch services are moved to a single dispatch center with a single management structure. A consolidated center requires diverse centers to be brought together under one management team with common operating platforms. While full consolidation often has the largest start up costs (initial investment) it typically provides the greatest long-term cost savings.
A consolidated center offers many advantages:
- employs common electrical, HVAC, and emergency power subsystems
- employees may be cross-trained
- employee schedules may be combined for added personnel efficiency
- flexible arrangements may amplify the commonalties in fire and medical dispatch.
- better interagency information sharing
- elimination of duplicate services
- opportunities to pool financial resources to fund system upgrades
- increased ability to communicate between agencies
- more efficient dispatch collaboration for fire and EMS
- potentially, a more cost effective overall solution
Several technical issues that must be addressed with a full consolidation: 911 equipment, administrative telephones, Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD), Records Management System (RMS), and recording equipment. The 911 equipment must be sized for the consolidated dispatch operation. The telephone workstations themselves must also accommodate the larger number of 911 and non-911 lines.
A single CAD (computer assisted dispatch) operating platform for the consolidated 911 operation is a necessity. Any new CAD must feed multiple records management systems. This single CAD must be able to upload into the various records management systems and be sophisticated enough to handle the call volume and dispatch functions. A consolidated center requires a single recording system capable of handling the consolidated load. These factors necessarily limit the number of CAD vendors, RMS vendors, and equipment vendors available because smaller vendors are not able to handle the increased capacity
Co-located consolidation: In this scenario, multiple dispatch centers are moved to the same physical location, but maintain separate operations. Often, this type of consolidation will bring together all of the agencies into one center located in the same building. The different operations share some of the infrastructure costs, but they remain separate in their dispatch responsibilities. This type of configuration is often driven by diverse dispatch needs in the individual communities.
In a scenario where 911 centers are co-located with separate operations, there is the potential (though not the requirement) to share some common equipment, such as the CAD system, RMS and radio equipment and maintain multiple 911 switches. The CAD and recorder systems in this scenario may also remain separate. The most challenging issues, however, usually involve personnel: parallel staffing for each agency, with multiple, separate schedules, pay scales, leave policies, and supervisors may prove inefficient.
Shared services: The major services are shared among multiple agencies. Typically, this includes the CAD, 911 Customer Premise Equipment (CPE) Automatic Number Identification / Automatic Location Identification (ANI/ALI), logging recording, Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping, and possibly the RMS system. In some cases, it may also be preferable to share radio system resources. In this scenario, critical systems are maintained in a single location, and all dispatch centers access them via an IP network. This environment requires redundant, reliable high-speed connectivity between the shared services location and each dispatch center.
Additionally, the agencies may agree to use a common CAD, RMS and radio console vendor. In this type of shared services environment, many of the dispatch centers may maintain their own CAD and RMS servers but choose a configuration that facilitates a common operating picture, which enables them to see all emergency response assets. A key advantage of this approach is the opportunity to share equipment costs and to reduce purchase and maintenance costs. In addition, shared technical support may increase interoperability and operational awareness.
One disadvantage of the shared services consolidation may be duplication of personnel and management, but our experience is that personal preferences and political realities may not support consolidation beyond this shared services approach.
Partial consolidation: The needs and capabilities of each agency are reviewed on an individual basis. Where consolidation makes the most sense, multiple dispatch centers are combined, but certain existing dispatch centers may continue to operate independently. A partial consolidation is a hybrid approach that makes recommendations based on political, operational, and fiscal realities. This approach combines dispatch centers that gain efficiencies from a consolidation but makes relatively few changes to those that would not benefit.
Each consolidation approach presents consolidation barriers to overcome. Our experience is that full consolidation presents the most barriers but offers the greatest long-term costs savings, so our discussion of barriers is focused on a full consolidation.
The primary barriers to consolidation are:
- lack of initial start-up funding
- lack of political will
- reluctance to give up control.
Initial startup costs can be daunting. In most cases, all equipment must be either replaced or upgraded, and the existing dispatch centers do not have the physical space and system capacity to accommodate all the agencies to be consolidated. A significant investment is required to design and build a facility that will meet the needs of the public safety agencies. These initial costs are typically in the millions of dollars.
In addition, the agencies will needed to seek funding, and may encounter concerns that a consolidated dispatch center will not be able to serve the local community and provide the “personal touch” that the individual centers provide. Through our work, we have learned that lack of political lobbying will be related to such perceptions as:
- personal contact will be lost between officers, firefighters and the dispatchers
- political control over the dispatch center will be lost
- community relationships will deteriorate,
- consolidation may result in loss of specific community knowledge
- accountability may be less clear or lost
- there may be a need to continue to provide personnel to perform the “other duties” a dispatcher normally performs.
While these concerns are real, they are difficult to measure and even more difficult to address. We have found that it is very helpful to encourage police chiefs, fire chiefs, city managers, and dispatch supervisors to visit consolidated dispatch centers and see first-hand how they have addressed these concerns and continue to provide the “personal touch.”
The unwillingness to give up control reflects the reality that an agency “owns” its dispatch center and can directly influence what does and does not happen in the facility. Typically, dispatch services are budgeted and staffed under a single public safety department and, if other agency’s services are provided, they are usually either contracted out of the primary department dispatch or simply provided within budget. This arrangement gives a chief a significant amount of influence and control over dispatch center operations that they are unwilling to give up.
When does consolidation work?
Simply put, consolidation works when its barriers are overcome by planning for the fiscal, political and operational realities. Although consolidation is not always the answer, it often takes a catastrophic incident before some of the resistance and barriers can be overcome, even in situations where the consolidation will clearly be beneficial.
Why talk about consolidation now? Fads in dispatch technology usually occurred when technology advances allow entire systems to be upgraded. This has occurred with 911 center switching technology updates, during a major radio system upgrade, or during a major CAD upgrade. Today, as agencies prepare for Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG 9-1-1) the “Should we consolidate?” question is asked more frequently.
As agencies face 9-1-1 call-volume increases, they are struggling with decreases in funding. As many communities struggle with having to do more with less money, they are taking a serious look at consolidated emergency dispatch centers in an effort to reduce costs.
Although every community has to weigh and balance the same considerations: protection of life and property. With a public safety system that meets the routine day-to-day needs of its community, each locality functions independently and has followed a diverse path to meet the needs of their respective communities and its citizens. This diversity presents some challenges in consolidating services and these challenges and needs must be addressed.
In addition to overcoming any barriers to consolidation, agencies must understand how a consolidated dispatch center will affect them on a day-to-day basis. Following is a discussion of major issues that can affect any type of consolidation.
First, the process must be open and involve all agencies affected by the consolidation in a transparent exchange of information and ideas. Ideally, this open process will examine all options and address tangible financial, technical and operational needs before concluding with recommendations on whether consolidation will benefit a community.
This open process will help participants see how a consolidation may enhance dispatch center interface between the public and its public safety agencies. The goal must be the operation of efficient, high-performing, customer-friendly organizations.
Community impact: The dispatch center may be the only contact citizens have with public safety agencies in their community. If discussion of a consolidated dispatch center leaves some citizens feeling abandoned, they may believe that large center, potentially located away from community, cannot provide the same level of service that a local dispatch center provides.
Although, in most cases, a well trained, adequately equipped and properly managed consolidated center is able to meet the needs of the communities they serve, perceptions are difficult to overcome. Dispatch consolidation project advocates must communicate strong, objective reasoning that clearly demonstrates why consolidation is the best option and that a consolidated center will meet local needs. They must also be prepared to accept the fact that it may not be the best option.
Political opposition: Because the dispatch center is such an integral part of any public safety agency, there is inevitably resistance to change. Consolidation may mean that agencies will give up direct control of the dispatch center. Although the typical governance model for a consolidated dispatch center includes equal representation from all agencies, many fear that their agency will lose control of all dispatch functions and that the smaller agencies will be “lost” in a large, consolidated center when consolidation occurs. This can be managed through a proper governance structure and a well managed center that can address the specific needs of every represented agency.
Where a dispatch center is under the direct oversight of a single public safety department head who directly influences operations, there is likely to be resistance to significant operational changes that are subject to approval by an established governance board. Furthermore, city councils and county boards may lose direct authority over the dispatch center and adjust to an advisory role to the governance board on dispatch center issues. These changes make some leaders very hesitant to agree to a consolidated dispatch. Voluntary participation by all stakeholders is essential to the success of any consolidation effort.
Increased cross-training and proficiency needed: Communications center operations personnel typically receive little recognition, although they function in one of the most complex and stress-filled work environments. Dispatch personnel supporting a single type of agency (law enforcement, fire/EMS, medical transport) require consolidation cross-training between disciplines to become equally proficient in police, fire and emergency medical protocols.
Each agency has specific characteristics that create training, scheduling and staffing challenges: the type of calls and the resources dispatched vary greatly between agencies. It is possible, of course, to designate dispatchers as police dispatch only, fire dispatch only, and call taker only, but this limits the staffing resources and inevitably leads to an increase in the number of personnel needed to fill the positions.
Additional duties: Most public safety dispatchers perform a multitude of administrative tasks, and while consolidation may remove these non-911 functions from the dispatchers, the functions must be satisfied in some other fashion by the agency. Estimating this workload and staffing levels impact be very complex, especially because these duties are largely non-quantifiable. It is critical, however, to identify these additional duties performed by the dispatchers and account for personnel within the department that can perform these functions as part of change management during the consolidation effort.
Dispatch protocols: Consolidation must address dispatch protocols and standard operating procedures to resolve service level issues before operations commence. Agencies must decide whether to follow the same protocol or permit differences between the agencies. Advances in computer-aided dispatch systems facilitate the use of different protocols but it is essential to establish common call classes and recommendation tables in the CAD.
This may require participating agencies to adopt the same set of signals and codes or to use plain text. The agencies must agree on the number of units assigned to a particular call class and the priority level as well as naming conventions for varying levels of service. A typical example is that a three alarm fire means the same thing to all fire agencies dispatched by the center. This level of detail in consolidation planning is essential to a smooth transition.
Once deployed, 9-1-1 systems cannot be shut down.
Finding an adequate backup facility can be challenging for a single agency, however, some consolidated centers become so large that a backup facility is simply not available. When considering consolidation, the back-up provisions, including power supply and public communications in the event of service interruptions, must be planned from the beginning.
Personal and staffing:
No two public safety agencies are identical. While there are many similarities, each agency has evolved based on its own local situation. The creation of a consolidated dispatch center will result in significant changes in the operations of each of the participating public safety agencies. It is critically important that the process of creating the shared center address displacement concerns, rehiring and seniority, as well as compensation and benefits.
Governance alternatives: Any consolidate effort requires a governance structure to support the decision-making process and day-to-day operations of the agencies. Alternative approaches to governing a shared emergency communications center and/or communications system are available as models in different localities throughout the nation with varying degrees of success. These may be categorized into three broad alternatives:
- One existing agency expands its services to include the other agencies’ dispatch services
- Collocation of dispatch centers
- Consolidation into separate, independent agencies
Although it is clear why many agencies fear the idea of consolidated dispatch, the barriers to consolidation can be overcome if there is political will to improve service to the agencies and communities served. While consolidation may not always be the answer, the fear of consolidation is best addressed through an objective process involving stakeholders from all agencies which addresses needs and determines the advantages where consolidation will clearly be beneficial.
Consultants can be very effective in leading an open and objective process: ideally they are free of pre-conceived ideas and conclusions.
Walter “Budge” Currier is a lead project engineer and project manager for AECOM. (Sacramento, CA). With a background in military communications, public safety communications, and teaching at the university level, he offers strong facilitation skills and operational knowledge with a strong technical background in his AECOM consulting role. Currier assists local, regional and state governments with interoperability assessments, dispatch center consolidation and governance, standard operating plan development, NIMS and SAFECOM compliancy, radio system needs assessments, and system design. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
James “Mike” Dye, ENP, CHS-III is a vice president at AECOM (Lynchburg, VA). He brings more 33 years of experience in public safety, including roles as a Police Lieutenant and a 911 Communications Manager, to his consulting role for government agencies nationwide. His AECOM team has completed 31 consolidation studies and supports local, regional and statewide agencies in developing governance models and business plans for consolidated 911 operations. He can be reached at email@example.com.