March 25, 2014 By Brian Heaton
Three Connecticut towns are hoping to get statutory approval on a bill that would help them regionalize their 911 call centers.
House Bill 5531 would authorize the cities of East Lyme, New London and Waterford to establish a municipal authority that would be paid for by each community based on the number of emergency calls from those areas. Previous attempts to consolidate under an inter-local agreement failed because one of the towns had to be the de-facto owner of the regional dispatch center and therefore legally responsible for a majority of the costs.
By creating the authority, the ownership obstacle is removed, and operation of the organization can be equalized, technology standardized and services consolidated. The arrangement would also help equalize liability for all three cities if a lawsuit stemming from 911 call response was brought against one.
The concept of regional government groups isn’t new in Connecticut. The state has a number of statutorily-created authorities already in operation. For example, the Ledge Light Health District (LLHD) serves as the local health department for East Lyme, Groton, Ledyard, New London and Waterford. The LLHD allows member communities to deliver more efficient and comprehensive health care to residents under one umbrella organization.
In written testimony presented to Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, and Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven, of the state’s Public Safety and Security Committee, Daniel Steward, first selectman of Waterford, noted how valuable similar municipal authorities in the health and energy industries have been for communities in Connecticut. He encouraged the lawmakers to push HB 5531 forward to give cities similar flexibility to regionalize their dispatch operations.
In an interview with Government Technology, Steward said he’s been working on the dispatch consolidation issue for about eight years. He explained that there are approximately 110 public service answering points (PSAPs) in Connecticut where all 911 calls are sent to. Towns of every size have their own answering service. The problem, as Steward sees it, is that each of those PSAPs has to be staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But some towns field more calls than others, leading to inefficiency.
Steward added that Waterford did a study six years ago that identified that it – along with East Lyme and New London – could save a lot of money and have more efficient and modern communications technology by pooling resources in a regional dispatch center. The problem was getting the cities all on the same page. The communities were “pretty close” at one point, he said, but after the plan went public, political leaders backed off committing to it.
That has changed, as all three cities are in support of HB 5531. The legislation is also supported by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM), which represents more than 92 percent of the state’s cities and towns.
“We think we’re there with this new kind of concept,” Steward said regarding regional 911 dispatch service. “We brought everybody into the room to say, ‘This is what we want to do and how it’s going to work.’”
Not everyone is as optimistic as Steward, however. Robert Coppola, president of the Trumbull Police Union filed a statement opposing HB 5531 citing concerns with implementing new dispatch protocols and procedures, officer safety and increased liability. He also suggested the cities’ interest in a regional dispatch center may be a move to shed unionized employees.
“Our local union sees that the problems lie with outdated equipment that is costly for the town to replace,” Coppola said in his testimony. “Assisting a municipality with grants or funding to make in-place improvements to their existing dispatch infrastructure would prove more effective than a ruse to consolidate dispatch facilities with mainly civilian and/or private employees...”
Steward admitted the cities are looking at better technology upgrades. He said one of the problems, however, is that communities are all on different computing platforms, which makes it difficult. Steward added that having a regional dispatch center in place would make upgrading easier.
“The way the state looks at it, in Connecticut, they don’t want to be paying for all these PSAPs, because they provide large sums of money for the equipment,” Steward said. “So they would like to see us [regionalize] … and it would put many of the communities on the same platform for software.”
HB 5531 is currently being evaluated by the Legislative Commissioners’ Office of the Connecticut General Assembly, which provides nonpartisan review of bills and statutory language. At press time, no further hearing on the bill was scheduled.