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New Berlin Police News

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A Letter From Police Chief Joe Rieder Regarding the Future of New Berlin's Dispatch Center

March 7, 2012

A Letter from Chief of Police Joe Rieder Concerning Police and Fire Dispatching Services in the City of New Berlin

The Issue: Police and Fire Dispatching Services in New Berlin

Representatives from Springsted, Inc. will be giving a public presentation to the Common Council on March 13, 2012 at New Berlin City Hall. Springsted, Inc. is a consulting firm which was retained by the City to study the feasibility of consolidating New Berlin’s police and fire dispatch services with the Waukesha County Communications Center. The purpose of this meeting is to present their findings to the Council in a public forum. Discussion and follow up questions from the Council are anticipated but no action is expected to be taken at this meeting. 

The timing of this letter is planned to coincide with the release of the report, currently planned on Monday March 12. The purpose of this letter is multifold: to provide the reader with a brief history and understanding of consolidated dispatch services, define the terms that will be used during the discussion and deliberations, and introduce some of the financial and service concerns. The decision by the City of New Berlin to maintain a local independent police and fire dispatch center, or join the consolidated center in Waukesha is one that will have a long lasting impact on our community. Consolidating dispatch services is considered a permanent and historically irreversible move. 

Terms to Know

PSAP – Public Safety Answering Point. PSAPs are local or consolidated dispatch centers where emergency and non-emergency calls are received and then dispatched to emergency personnel. A PSAP can be a local center like New Berlin’s or a consolidated center like the Waukesha County Communications Center.

WCC – Waukesha County Communications Center. The WCC is a consolidated dispatch center serving numerous police and fire agencies throughout Waukesha County.

Single Stage Dispatch System – A system in which one dispatcher answers the phone and also operates the radio to dispatch emergency personnel. Because of our size, New Berlin uses this system.

Two Stage Dispatch System – Also called a ‘Call-taker/Dispatch System’. This is generally employed by larger dispatch centers like the WCC due to call volume. A call-taker receives the call, passing the information on to a radio operator who dispatches appropriate emergency personnel. 

Who Dispatch Centers Serve

There are two primary users of a dispatch center’s services: public safety personnel (police and fire), and the public. The public calls the dispatch center when there is a matter requiring a public safety response; a car accident or medical emergency for example. Public safety personnel use the dispatch center as their point of communication for gathering or leaving information as well as coordinating responses to emergency and non-emergency events. 

New Berlin’s Current System; An Independent PSAP

Let’s take a look at the current system for dispatching emergency and non-emergency calls in New Berlin. The City maintains its own local police and fire dispatch center located within the Public Safety Building at 16300 W. National Avenue. Staffed 24/7, all calls made to the center (with the exception of wireless cell phone 911 calls) are answered by a local New Berlin dispatcher. New Berlin employs twelve dispatchers to cover three shifts, with two dispatchers required to be on duty at any given time. 

New Berlin uses a single stage dispatch system. This means the dispatcher who answers your phone call is often the same dispatcher who sends the call out to the police or fire units via radio. The primary advantage to this system is that the dispatcher serves as a direct link between the caller and the responding emergency units. This can be a time saver particularly in emergency situations or during real time events such as crime-in-progress calls when seconds can be crucial.

The Waukesha County Consolidated Dispatch Center (WCC)

The idea of one central police and fire dispatch center for a county or region is not a new one. It was entertained in Waukesha County as early as the1960’s, and implemented in 2004 under then Waukesha County Executive Dan Finley. According to Finley, he promised substantial cost savings to taxpayers, while providing the same or better dispatching service to citizens. Consolidated dispatch centers exist throughout the United States, including Wisconsin. 

The WCC currently employs 41 non-supervisory dispatchers, with minimum staffing levels of seven to nine, and serves 38 police and fire agencies in Waukesha County. Due to the size of the agency, a two stage dispatch system is employed which means the call-taker receives your call, and then conveys the information to a radio operator who notifies the appropriate police and fire units. 

All 911 cell phone calls made in Waukesha County are initially routed to the WCC and transferred to a local PSAP if required. For instance, if you are in New Berlin and dial 911 on your cell phone the call will be answered by a dispatcher at the WCC, and then transferred to the New Berlin PSAP where a New Berlin dispatcher will send police or fire units as needed. 

Costs and Savings of Consolidation

Dispatching is a critical function of public safety and there are costs to it. Consolidating with the WCC will require the City of New Berlin to pay a one-time buy in fee of approximately $400,000 to Waukesha County. No annual fee to the County is required thereafter; operating costs for the WCC are then entirely paid for through the on-going assessment of county taxes.

Not all Waukesha County communities paid the one-time fee and bought in to the WCC in 2003. The County’s promise of equal or better dispatch services, coupled with a significant financial savings to taxpayers, was not enough to lure some to the WCC. Several communities including New Berlin opted to maintain independent PSAP’s despite the additional tax burden. One of the chief reasons cited by New Berlin and other communities that opted out of the WCC was their satisfaction with the level of service provided by the independent PSAPs. New Berlin had also invested eight million dollars in a new Public Safety Building just a few years earlier. Built to house the Police Department, and the Fire Department’s administrative offices, it also contained a new local dispatch center dedicated to providing the City’s emergency radio services. New Berlin stood to lose the value of the money it had invested into its PSAP by consolidating dispatch services with the WCC in 2003.   

But opting out did not offer financial relief to those communities that elected to maintain independent PSAPs. In fact, opting out of the WCC added to that community’s financial burden. The explanation lies here: All Waukesha county taxpayers are paying for WCC whether their community participates as a member or not. In other words, New Berlin residents and business owners are paying local taxes to maintain their independent PSAP, while also paying county taxes to support the services WCC provides to other communities. Fair or not, and now more than ever, local officials must consider the burden of double taxation to their constituencies.

The City of New Berlin will spend approximately one million dollars in 2013 to maintain and staff its own dispatch center. This includes overhead costs, equipment repair, maintenance, leases, and wages and benefits for twelve dispatchers. In 2014 the City will also need to budget an additional amount of approximately $830,000 for infrastructure improvements and to upgrade to the next generation 911 system. Much of this equipment should be on a ten year replacement cycle for which the New Berlin PSAP is 2 years overdue.

City officials must also consider the level of control they wish to have over their service providers. Outsourcing services to other government entities or to private enterprise may mean a lower operating cost to a municipality, but it may also mean relinquishing direct control over the delivery and quality of service. Ultimately government, like all consumers, measures value by balancing cost with the quality of service they wish to receive.

Summary

Dispatching services are critical to maintaining public safety in our community. A contemporary dispatch center has become a highly technical environment; the cost to operate and maintain one has risen as rapidly as the technologies supporting it have evolved.   This has had a marked impact on a municipality’s financial ability to regularly reinvest in the necessary infrastructure required to operate a dispatch center. Maintenance and personnel expenses also require taxpayer support and in this difficult economy it is incumbent upon our government officials to explore options that offer financial savings. Striking a balance between the level of service the community desires and how much it is willing to pay requires your input.

The public meeting to consider dispatch services in New Berlin will be held on March 13, 2012 at 7:00PM at the New Berlin City Hall Council Chambers, 3805 S. Casper Drive. You may also view it on the local cable access channel that night or via the City’s website. Please contact your local elected officials to express your opinion about this issue. Thank you.

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