Police, fire departments to unite dispatch centers
Updated 12:23 pm, Friday, March 17, 2017
WESTPORT — Hoping to streamline police and fire emergency responses and save costs over time, Westport’s police and fire departments will be uniting to create a centralized dispatch center at police headquarters.
The new $1.42 million combined dispatch center — cutting down on staffing as well as the need to transfer emergency calls or pick up the phone to share information — passed the Representative Town Meeting with a unanimous 26-0 vote last week. Police Chief Foti Koskinas described the plan as fiscally responsible over time, as well as important for ensuring firefighters, police officers and EMS have the same, correct information.
“We’re at a time that information sharing is critical to what we do,” he said, explaining in an emergency, some calls might go to the police department while others to the fire department, meaning the emergency responders are addressing the same incident but operating off information that is not identical. “We’re playing this crazy game at a time that we shouldn’t be. Additionally, we’re using more resources.”
The combination of the dispatch centers is expected to save $1.4 million by its fifth year of operation, $1.3 million by year six and $1.4 million by year seven. The cost savings are, in part, for dispatcher staffing. With the combined center, fire and police plan to staff three dispatchers instead of the four now serving both departments during the day.
The centralized dispatch center, to be located at police headquarters, has been proposed several times since the 1970s. Studies in 1977 and 1998 of police, fire or emergency services in town recommended combining for a single center. An ongoing study of fire services in town again came to the same conclusion this year, Koskinas said.
“There’s really no downside to this, other than an up-front expense that really, over a short time, pays itself back,” he said.
The timing was also right, Fire Chief Robert Yost said, because 911 and communication system must be upgraded, so combining to a single center avoids paying for two sets of upgrades. The dispatchers will be cross-trained so all attention can shift to fire dispatch in the case of a large fire or to police dispatch in the case of a major incident with heavy police response.
Westport looked to Milford,which recently moved to a single fire and police dispatch center, and neighboring Fairfield, which has had a single center in police headquarters for at least two decades.
In Fairfield’s police and fire dispatch center, three to four dispatchers are staffed at most times, with one handling 911 calls, another dispatching fire and AMR and a third dispatching police, but all working from the same room, Fairfield Police Lt. Robert Kalamaras said.
Working in a single location, coordination can happen “almost seamlessly,” he said.
Dispatchers answering calls in Fairfield’s dispatch center described the single location as making coordination far easier. For a joint response such as a car crash, one dispatcher can turn to another at the next desk to coordinate so police and fire responses are in sync and speedy. With separate centers, the Fairfield dispatchers explained, a 911 call might need to be transferred to the opposite department before any response can begin, something the single location cuts out during an emergency when seconds can count.
The new center will have more room, opening the opportunity to dispatch for nearby towns. Westport Fire already dispatches for New Canaan’s fire department, an effort supported by a $70,000 state grant.
When the departments move into the unified center, they could accommodate dispatching for other small towns. Combining 911 communications with other towns can qualify the joint services for up to $250,000 in state grant funding. Yost said Westport is courting other towns to enlist its dispatching services at the combined center.
Last week, RTM members voiced their overwhelming support following the passage of the measure. Jennifer Johnson, RTM 9, said she thought the presentation was great and is “very supportive” of the initiative.
“I am very pleased with this new 911 dispatch program,” said John Suggs, RTM 5. “Not only will it be more cost effective and saving the town considerable money going forward, but it will also increase efficiency. Kudos to the police and fire departments for developing such an exciting proposal.”