The pros and cons of local dispatch
- Published: April 4, 2013
One evening when Teresa Newsome was on duty as dispatcher at the Yellow Springs Police Department, she received a call from a worried villager. The woman’s elderly husband, who had some dementia, had taken a walk and, after several hours, not returned. Newsome knew both the woman and her husband, and she dispatched a police officer to look for the man. Hours passed, the man’s wife became almost hysterical with concern, and Newsome and the officer continued working together to find the man. After dark, police discovered him on the bike path, where he had fallen. His wife believed that if he hadn’t been found, he would have lain there all night, and possibly died.
“Afterwards, she said ‘this is something that only a small town would have done,’” Newsome said, referring to the woman’s gratitude. “I don’t think Xenia would persevere like we did. We get to know people.”
Most calls handled by Yellow Springs dispatch don’t involve life or death situations, of course. But even in the least significant situations, the relationships between villagers and police dispatchers appear to make a difference, according to four dispatchers interviewed for this article.
Dispatcher Ruth Peterson knows many villagers through her work driving a bus for the Yellow Springs schools, a personal connection that she believes is a relief to some villagers when they need to call the police.
“Usually when people call, they’re not in their right state of mind, they’re upset about something,” she said. “I feel like when they know they’re talking to Miss Ruth from the bus, I can hear them calm down. Their whole manner changes.”
The question of whether Yellow Springs should keep its local dispatchers came up at Village Council last week, when Village Manager Laura Curliss proposed that Council consider outsourcing its police dispatch service, while maintaining the local police department.
Yellow Springs would save a considerable amount of money if it consolidates dispatch with Xenia, Curliss said in an interview last week, especially considering state cuts to municipal budgets.
“We have to look at long-term sustainability for maintaining safety,” she said. “There would be a significant savings to the Village to contract with central communication to take all of our calls.”
Curliss also stated that if the Village sends dispatching to Xenia, it could benefit from more up-to-date technology.
While Village Council initially intended to discuss the dispatch issue at its April 1 meeting, it has postponed the discussion until April 15, according to Council President Judith Hempfling this week, so that Police Chief Anthony Pettiford, currently on medical leave, can participate.
Why go to Xenia?
At Village Council’s March 18 meeting, Curliss presented an agreement she had crafted for the Village to enter into shared dispatch services with the Xenia police, which calls for the Village to move dispatch to Xenia by Aug. 1, 2013. Council began discussion on the issue but did not vote.
The agreement grew from meetings with other Greene County municipalities over the past several months, Curliss wrote Council in a memo. Prompting a move toward dispatch consolidation is a state decision to disburse 911 funding of about $330,000 a year to only one dispatch center, rather than to the three centers that currently receive the funding (Yellow Springs does not currently receive 911 funding). While the overall vision of county police chiefs is for one central dispatch center, they see having two facilities as an initial step toward that goal, with Xenia as one center and Beavercreek/Fairborn as the other. Along with Yellow Springs, Bellbrook and Sugarcreek are other small towns considering consolidation with Xenia, she said.
Currently, the Village employs two full-time and five part-time dispatchers. While their Yellow Springs jobs would be gone, they could for a year be put on a preferred hiring list for a lateral move to the four new positions that Xenia plans to add, should the consolidation occur, Curliss said. The dispatchers would compete for the four jobs with dispatchers from Bellbrook and Sugarcreek. (According to Xenia Police Chief Randy Person last week, while he has verbally agreed to that arrangement, a formal agreement regarding hiring dispatchers has not been reached).
The Village in 2012 spent about $217,000 on its local dispatch personnel, a lower amount than the $292,000 that Curliss presented to Council. The $292,000 amount, from the Village’s 2013 budget, included a third dispatcher position that the Village has considered adding to replace current part-timers, but has not actually added.
Curliss presented two alternative scenarios for dispatch consolidation with Xenia: in one scenario, all dispatch 24/7 would go to Xenia. The cost of 24/7 dispatch service in Xenia would within four years rise to about $98,000. The savings to the Village General Fund budget of $3.2 million would eventually be about $119,000 a year, using the 2012 Village budget figures, or $194,000, using the 2013 figures.
In the other scenario, the Village would maintain a dispatcher from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays, and Xenia would take over dispatch on evenings, nights and week-ends. The cost to the Village for Xenia dispatch would be lower in this scenario, although the cost of a full-time dispatcher would need to be added.
And the cost of running a dispatch department goes beyond personnel, according to Curliss. For example, she said, to stay current the local dispatch office would have to pay about $120,000 to upgrade to a new console in order to use its new MARCS radio system, which, according to Greene County Sheriff Gene Fischer, will allow enhanced communication between departments during emergencies.
“The costs of running a modern state of the art communications system continue to rise,” Curliss said in an interview last week. “It becomes more difficult for jurisdictions to support unless they join forces.”
Due to rising costs of technology, Curliss believes the time is near when a small town simply can’t afford to maintain its own dispatch.
Another reason for consolidation is efficiency, according to Curliss. While local dispatchers currently handle about 5,300 calls a year for police services (and more for non-police), Xenia employs four dispatchers who last year dispatched 70,000 calls for police and emergency services, which means they probably initially received more than 100,000 calls, Chief Person said.
“The only way to fully use a dispatcher’s time is to have more call volume,” Curliss said.
The Bryan Center would continue to be open to the public until about 10 p.m. even if dispatch is moved, as monitors will be in the building, Curliss said, adding that there are various options for providing customer service, including extending the hours of the utility office, depending on what service Council wants to provide.
Xenia Police Chief Person, in an interview last week, stated that cost and efficiency are the main reasons to consolidate dispatch services. Regarding technology, he said that Yellow Springs basically uses the same systems that Xenia does, and has access to the same information in almost all situations.
However, according to Officer Naomi Penrod, who is acting chief during Pettiford’s medical leave, the Village dispatch system needs upgrades because “what we have now are pieces and parts that we’ve put together to get by.”
Overall, Person believes that more experience and training is the reason his staff — which already handles Yellow Springs 911 calls, as well as Miami Township Fire Rescue calls — could provide excellent service.
“In an emergency situation, one person is not totally inundated,” he said, stating that because there are four dispatchers on duty in Xenia versus only one in Yellow Springs, an emergency is less overwhelming. And the Xenia dispatchers have handled far more serious crimes, such as burglaries, than have Village dispatchers.
“Realistically, how many robberies take place in Yellow Springs?” he said.
Curliss also believes it’s important to be able to handle an emergency situation, no matter how rare.
“We don’t have the situation often, but when you get that emergency” you want to be prepared, she said.
Loss of human connection?
Curliss said she doesn’t understand the concern that if local dispatchers move to Xenia, villagers would lose the human connection with dispatchers that they now enjoy.
Xenia dispatchers are human, too, she said, and “the human connection should be that you call for help and the dispatchers send the right help. They don’t come to help you themselves.”
When a call comes in, the dispatcher’s interaction should be “professional and to the point,” she said. “They should stay on the line only if there’s a reason to do so.”
According to Xenia Chief Person, his dispatchers are well-trained to connect callers to the appropriate resources. Because they constantly revolve between the three dispatch desks — one for Xenia calls, one for Greene County calls and one for fire and EMS — they are able to help each other out when needed.
“There’s a synergy that occurs when multiple people are dispatchers,” he said.
But Xenia dispatchers are not familiar with those who call for help, according to Kim Crisswell, a 13-year veteran of the dispatch office, who was working last Friday. Asked if she ever knows the individuals who call in, she said she does not.
“No,” she said. “I’m covering the whole county.”
Things are different in Yellow Springs, where each of four dispatchers interviewed said that knowing those they serve is important to their job.
“There’s a lot of special touches that we give that people won’t get from Xenia,” said Yellow Springs dispatcher Larry Campbell, who is the face villagers see behind the police dispatch window during weekdays. He plans to retire in December after 20 years as a dispatcher, and 44 years with the Village (however, if dispatch moves to Xenia in August, he will lose part of his retirement benefits, Campbell said).
For instance, there are several elders in town who Campbell checks in with, on a regular basis, just to make sure they’re okay.
“I care about them,” he said. “And I’m not the only one who does that sort of thing.”
Elderly people who call at night frightened by a noise sometimes just need to hear a caring voice on the phone, according to Teresa Newsome.
“If they know you, they say, it’s nice to hear your voice,” she said. “I think they find it reassuring that they know me.”
And if the person is very upset, Newsome will ask him or her to stay on the phone with her until an officer shows up at the door.
Overall, said Newsome, it seems that if dispatch moves to Xenia, “it will center around crime and emergencies rather than helping people.”
While the dispatchers interviewed all said they get satisfaction from the human connection they feel on the job, they dispute that they don’t have enough to do. They are taking calls from villagers regarding neighbor disputes, harassment, animal complaints, custody issues, lost bikes, domestic violence, noise complaints, welfare checks, disorderly persons and a host of other issues.
Yes, there are more calls some days than others, but the dispatchers have other tasks as well. On a recent morning, in between getting calls from a villager who locked herself out of her car, dispatching a police officer to unlock the car, then dispatching the officer to check homes of villagers who are away. Campbell continually checked the three computer screens in front of him. On two screens, Campbell updated police service calls into the New World system, while keeping an eye on the LEADS screen (Law Enforcement Automated Data System) which provides national, state or area alerts. He also continually scanned the 10 different views inside and outside Bryan Center provided by surveillance cameras, as part of maintaining building security. He also wrote down significant events or alerts to add to the update given to an officer at the end of each day.
The dispatcher’s job also includes manning the dispatch window, and most days dispatchers respond to requests for lost items, give directions, collect money for parking tickets and in general provide customer service.
But this wasn’t an extremely busy day, the sort sparked by weather emergencies or power outages. On those days, local dispatchers field hundreds of calls to keep villagers informed, according to dispatcher Randall Newsome, who wonders how Xenia dispatch would handle those situations.
The knowledge that local dispatchers have of villagers is not just an extra frill, according to overnight dispatcher Rita Check. In many cases, that knowledge helps an officer stay safe, or solve a problem. For instance, when a local mother calls in because her teenage son hasn’t returned home, the combined knowledge of the dispatcher and officer on duty proves helpful.
“Chances are the officer knows him or I know him and we know who his friends are, so the officer knows where to look,” she said. “Unless you need that service, people may not know how knowledgeable we are.”
And if a local person has mental issues, the dispatcher is likely to know that, and make sure the officer who responds is prepared, according to Newsome.
As the overnight dispatcher, Check sometimes receives calls from people who she suspects are just lonely. While she doesn’t let those calls prevent her from responding to others, she recognizes that a caring voice on the phone can make a difference, she said.
“Some people just need to know there’s someone out there,” she said.
To Teresa Newsome, the extra mile that Yellow Springs dispatchers sometimes go adds up to something more, a sense of community.
“I look around and see the amount of crime in Beavercreek and Xenia and then look at Yellow Springs and we’re so fortunate,” she said. “I can’t help but feel that the lack of serious crime is because we’re a community. We know people.”
Most of the dispatchers interviewed said they don’t plan to add their names to the list for a lateral transfer to Xenia. The part-time dispatchers felt they would be at a disadvantage compared to full-time dispatchers from Bellbrook or Sugarcreek, and the 12-hour shifts sounded too long and uncomfortable to Teresa Newsome.
At last Monday’s Village Council meeting, long-term Village police officer Dennis Nipper, who is now retired but still working part-time for the department, expressed his concern that if dispatch leaves Yellow Springs, officer safety could be compromised. Stating that he was speaking only as a citizen, Nipper reported that the dispatchers are especially important at night, when an officer, who may be working alone, brings a suspect into the department.
“You’ve got the officer alone,” with the suspect, a situation that could turn dangerous, Nipper said at the meeting.
Each of the four dispatchers interviewed stated that she or he felt their presence enhanced officer safety. Specifically, if at night an officer takes a suspect into the department interview room, the dispatcher keeps a close eye on the image provided by a surveillance camera, to make sure the situation doesn’t get out of hand. If it does, the dispatcher quickly calls for backup from the county, or from a local officer such as Nipper, according to Newsome.
In response to that concern, Police Chief Pettiford said in a phone call that, “Officer safety is always number one.”
A dispatcher in the building at night can be helpful, he said, but there are also alternatives. For instance, if there are no dispatchers and an officer is bringing in a suspect, the officer could call for back-up from another department to meet him or her at the door of the Bryan Center, so that the officer doesn’t enter the building alone.
“If it was me personally, I’d be on the radio calling for back-up,” Pettiford said. There is no charge to the Village for back-up support from another municipality, he said.
Most importantly, he said, the discussion about moving the dispatch office is at the beginning, and, “We’re in talks and a lot of things still need to be talked about. There are several things we need to iron out if Council chooses to go that direction.”