O’FALLON – Two area police chiefs have teamed up to make the best of a state-mandated 911 dispatch center consolidation effort they’re not happy with.
O’Fallon Chief Eric Van Hook and Fairview Heights Chief Nick Gailius have been working together after a law took effect on January 1 requiring the reduction of the number of public safety answering points, or PSAPs, by half by July 1, 2017, in counties with populations under 500,000.
“We decided to be proactive and say we might be better off to combine forces. That way we’ll still have some control over the quality of service for our residents and all of our first responders,” said Van Hook.
According to O’Fallon Dispatch Supervisor and Radio System Coordinator Daryl Ostendorf, the mandate was originally designed as a way to enhance the state’s 911 system and help counties that don’t have 911 obtain it.
“It started out as a way to create an across-the-state surcharge, exempting the city of Chicago, for 911. That money was then to be used to pay for progression to next-generation 911, which includes video to 911 and text to 911 capabilities. It would provide for a state-wide network for that to happen. Also, at that point in time there were 15 counties that didn’t have any 911 capabilities whatsoever. I believe we’re now down to 11. This was to assist them in their funding. And these are very small population counties, to where even with the surcharge , they would still probably not be able to afford 911. With that, the General Assembly began looking at consolidation. said Ostendorf.
St. Clair County was proactive and already has invested $2.4 million to implement next-generation 911. Madison County has also implemented the new system and invested $7 million.
Van Hook said one of his major issues comes from the seemingly arbitrary reduction of PSAPs by fifty percent.
“For me the fifty percent reduction seemed like a very arbitrary and capricious number that can’t be supported. No one has ever been able to tell me how they came up with that number. Why fifty percent? It creates inequities among some counties,” he said.
According to Van Hook and Ostendorf, Madison County has 16 PSAPs today and will be forced down to eight. In 2014, Madison County handled approximately 133,000 911 calls. St. Clair County has eight PSAPs and is cutting to four, despite having had approximately 199,000 calls in 2014.
“When you look at the overall picture through the state of Illinois, you have two counties that have populations over 200,000 people that are next generation ready. St. Clair and Madison Counties,” Van Hook said. “In my mind they ought to be asking us ‘How did you guys do this’ instead of ‘Hey, we’re going to come in and force a mandate cutting you down by 50 percent and then we’re going to take additional revenue from your residents to help build it our elsewhere.’”
Gailius agreed saying you can’t just look at one metric.
“We’re number ten population wise, but number four on the number of 911 calls. That’s how busy it is,” said Gailius.
Van Hook said one of the major arguments proponents of consolidation are making is that it will reduce costs and save money. However, he doesn’t necessarily agree.
“When you talk about regionalization it always comes down to dollar signs. I get there are some potential cost saving efforts for some counties because they’ll have the extra counties helping them to build out their next generation systems, but we’ve already done that. St. Clair County taxpayers have already paid for it once, but now everyone will see a 34 percent increase to the surcharge to help pay for everyone else’s systems. It seemed we were being punished for being fiscally responsible. The St. Clair County ETSB took it upon themelves to be proactive and do this. We’re way ahead of the game. And now this gets forced down upon us,” said Van Hook.
“From what I’ve read, there’s not a given formula showing that there will be a cost savings and that’s what’s been sold,” Van Hook continued. “We’ve been told it’ll be a great cost savings measure statewide, but the jury is still out. There is a financial cost to this, trying to blend our technologies. We each have different record management systems and now we have to go to one. Consolidation may sound great, but my first response is to ask ‘Show me where I’m saving the money and how does it maintain or enhance safety for my officers or the residents.’ And no one has been able to answer that question for us.”
Gailius agreed, saying that its not as simple as one cut equals one savings.
“What gets lost when they talk about consolidation is that its not a decrease in cost to locals, its actually an increase. The reason is that at a lot of smaller agencies, 911 dispatchers do many other things, like file police reports, do data entry, watch prisoners, some may even handle the billing for the water department. Now you’ve got to pay someone to do your 911 services and you need someone there to do these ancillary duties, and I don’t think the people at the state level thought that through. I know a lot of smaller agencies where the dispatchers are multi-taskers, and just because you’re not dispatch anymore doesn’t mean the other work doesn’t have to be done. Really its going to be a cost instead of a savings.”
According to Van Hook and Gailius, their dispatchers all perform multiple tasks while on duty that would still have to be performed if their respective PSAPs were shut down.
Gailius said he is concerned that this move is a step backwards for public safety.
“Since 9/11 there has been a real push for public safety to all be communicating and working together. What this will do is push everything back to the days where everything is stove-piped. As chiefs we look at the public safety of the community overall. Part of that is 911, fire, EMS, and police. What happens when its stove-piped is that 911 gets the call and that is their mission. Police is over here. Fire is over here. And no one is really working with one another anymore and you lose that accountability to your core mission, which is to provide a public safety service. When you get into these multi-jurisdictional centers, you have to be careful because there is a lack of accountability to the local agencies. I don’t want to have a situation where a situation goes badly and the people running the 911 center just shrugs their shoulders and says ‘Ok’,” he said.
“That’s one of the reasons we were so interested in working together. Our sizes of communities are very similar, our procedures are nearly exact, and a matter of fact some of our dispatchers work here sometimes and some of theirs work at our place sometimes. So there’s already an integration in our cultures that will serve us well as we transition into a consolidation. While I still believe my community would be best served by its own 911 dispatch center, I don’t dismiss that there could be some benefits here and if I have to form a relationship, of all the departments I’d want to form a relationship with, it would be O’Fallon,” Gailius continued.
Van Hook and Gailius both agreed they are concerned this push for consolidation could continue and result in regional 911 centers.
“We’re talking public safety. When we get to the point when you’ve got someone in Effingham or Decatur answering your call, its no different than when you call to complain about your cable being out and the person on the other side of the phone doesn’t care. There’s no accountability,” Van Hook said.
“One big concern is that we will go through all of this and in two years, when they put a sunset on this law, the talk on the street is that they’ll make us consolidate again. So they’ll take our four and knock us down to one or two. I’ve even heard some talk where they might even regionalize, where all of downstate Illinois is dispatched out of Bloomington, Decatur, or Belleville. By the time you get that big, its all too late,” said Gailius.
The chiefs both said there are lobbying efforts in Springfield to try and change the existing law. According to Gailius, State Representative Jay Hoffman has been speaking with local law enforcement about what needs to be done, and Representatives Dwight Kay and Jerry Costello have also indicated they would look into the issue. In the meantime, Van Hook and Gailius are pushing forward.
“Consolidation conceptually isn’t a bad idea. There’s ten or eleven counties right now that don’t have 911 service and everyone should have 911 services. But that should have been the goal, getting those counties on board. Consolidation will be a very good thing for small counties with small populations, but we believe we are very unique compared to other counties,” said Van Hook. “This is the hand we’ve been dealt and we’re trying to do the very best we can for our communities.”