July 1, 2009 Tri-Town Transcript Article

Pennsylvania county officials rave about their regional dispatch center

By Brendan Lewis/blewis@cnc.com

Wed Jul 01, 2009, 10:46 AM EDT

Lackawanna County, Pa. -  

Supporters of a regional dispatch center say the consolidation of smaller call centers in Essex County into one facility will save money and improve emergency response. A recent commitment from the state suddenly made the prospect possible and many community leaders are wondering if this model will work in the North Shore.

The center would be located on the grounds of the Middleton correctional facility and would replace the dispatch services for the communities that have expressed interest in the proposal.

However, the plan, which would close down many police stations at night and strip local control of emergency dispatch, has garnered opposition from some police officials throughout the county.

Down in Lackawanna County, Pa., Emergency Services Director Tom Dubas runs a similar regional dispatch center serving a population of roughly 213,000 under a county government.

While the regionalization of Lackawanna County took place over a long period of time — from the 1970s until about five years ago — Dubas said the towns that make up the county, an area similar to the North Shore, could not picture life without it.

We couldn’t envision a system that could work this good,” Dubas said. “There has never been a discussion to going back to local control.”

As it has for years, the operations of the regional center costs individual towns next to nothing, provides tailored services to each of the 40 municipalities, and offers a level and depth of service unattainable by a small community.

The 465-square-mile county, roughly 35-square miles less than Essex, contains cities like Scranton, with 80,000 people, and townships that have as little as a few hundred people. Dunmore, which has a population of around 15,000 people, was one of the last communities to join the center in the mid-1990s.

Managing one of the larger police departments in Lackawanna County, Dunmore Assistant Police Chief Jim Boland said his town officials were hesitant at first to give up local control to the regional operation.

“We thought they would have trouble handling the additional response calls,” said Boland.

Boland said the department was unsure whether the extra 10,000 calls per year from Dunmore would overburden the regional facility. Soon after, he realized it was the right move.

“They did very well,” Boland said about the transition. “It seemed to go smooth…they grew as the area grew.”

Dubas, who is also the project manager for Essex County’s proposed center said the regional facility specifically caters to municipalities’ personal needs.

There is a lot of personalization that we do for a lot of communities,” Dubas said.

 

 Streamlined and personalized 

Certain areas in a given town, such as an intersection, may have a common name different from its official address. In these cases, dispatchers are provided aliases in each town and their computers will translates the information into a specific location.

It is not like that personalization disappears,” Dubas said. “A dispatcher may know where that location is. In the future, a computer is going to know that location.”

Some Essex County emergency officials have argued that the regional dispatchers would be disconnected from life at a given town’s police station and would not have information readily available.

Dubas said that two-thirds of the calls at the regional center, located in Jessup, Pa., are non-emergency calls and that dispatchers are given information regularly to handle business related calls.

For example, police shift schedules for each town are provided to dispatchers every day, which includes specific information such as which patrol officer is using which police cruiser. 

In Dunmore, Boland said dispatchers at the regional center are familiar with individuals in certain towns and understand their conditions.

And Dubas said the facility not only matches, but exceeds the level of service that communities were able to offer individually in the past.

As an example, Dubas referred to a period of severe weather that shook the region late last month. On Thursday, June 25, Lackawanna County had terrible storms. In a period of an hour and 40 minutes, the nine dispatchers and three administrative workers made 800 calls and were able to stay on top of a situation that would have overburdened smaller communities.

Police calls too are streamlined and information is relayed faster.

Following the discovery of a triple murder in Scranton, police learned the murder suspect may have fled to New York City, go to a dress shop chain to kill more, or flee to another area of the state.

Within a half hour, Dubas said dispatchers had contacted New York state police, management at every location of the dress shop, every area police department, the district attorney’s office, and the coroner. Police officers in nearby Wilkes-Barre eventually caught the suspect.

“It was all done very, very quickly,” Dubas said. “Where it ever were to happen, they would be hard pressed to do that in that 30-minute period.”

But an increase in the quality of dispatch service isn’t the only advantage they have experienced.

Like the funding for the proposed center, Dubas said that the 911 department in Lackawanna County receives $1.25 each month for any land lines in Lackawanna County and one $1 from wireless phones. This, he said, funds 95 percent of the annual dispatch operation budget, which is roughly $5.5 million.

The rest he said is covered by the county government, which in turn, receives taxes from the communities in the town.

There is going to be savings with this,” said Dubas said, about the proposed facility in Essex County. “If that money can keep an extra fire officer on a fire truck…that is a lot more important.”