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New Haven wants to upgrade its 911 dispatching system...but who should pay?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013 - 8:34 am

As of Jan. 15, 2014, the New Haven Police Department's 911 dispatch component will not be compatible with equipment used by the Combined Communications Partnership, a joint dispatching venture of the City of Fort Wayne and Allen County, after an upgrade to the CCP's dispatch system is complete.

The cost to upgrade New Haven's system, according to New Haven Police Department Chief Steve Poiry, is $105,622.88.

A question: Who should pay for that?

The answer...is not clear, which should be concerning for taxpayers who want to know their emergency call is being answered as rapidly as possible. But I'm going to try to explain it, anyway.

First, some facts:

•New Haven employs six full-time dispatchers and fields around 6,000 emergency calls each year.

•Of those 6,000 calls, during times of heavy call volume, some will be diverted to Allen County dispatch. That is a two-way street; Allen County dispatch has rollover calls routed to New Haven dispatch.

•With New Haven currently able to handle its own dispatching, it has opted not to be part of Allen County's dispatching in years past or the Combined Communications Partnership going forward; the CCP will handle 911 calls and police and fire dispatching for the rest of Allen County.

That's where this entire scenario goes sideways: New Haven – which has 15,000-plus residents who, as a collective, pay levied 911 fees – does not want to be a part of the CCP.

Whose money is this, anyway?

Since the CCP is an entity that uses collected tax dollars that will support a system that will remove New Haven's compatibility, Poiry feels that the sunk cost of upgrading New Haven's system should also be paid for by the CCP.

“All we're asking is that the 911 fees for the residents of New Haven be used for this upgrade,” Poiry said. “I don't think it's that much to ask.”

First, to be clear: New Haven residents, or those within New Haven 911 boundaries who are in distress, will not lose the ability to make 911 calls as of Jan. 15, 2014. Instead, those calls will automatically go to the CCP's new location of operation, on the sixth floor of the Rousseau Centre.

Poiry doesn't think that best suits the needs of those in New Haven.

“We don't think that a dispatcher based in another city can handle that kind of emergency call as well as our dispatchers can,” Poiry said. “These are emergency calls, with people in distress. They sometimes aren't thinking clearly or don't know exactly where they are. Our dispatchers can help them the best -- they know the area, they know the city.

“That's our feeling: We want these calls to be dispatched as quickly as possible, as accurately as possible,” Poiry said.

Other viewpoints

But is it that simple?

Not necessarily, according to Allen County Commissioner Therese Brown, who is also the current president of the CCP board – because as of Tuesday afternoon, after a meeting of that board, Brown said that New Haven had “opted out” of the CCP partnership and no request had been made for any consideration of funds or inclusion in the partnership.

Poiry was present at the meeting, which did not have New Haven or its concerns on the agenda. He left at the conclusion; and Brown pointed out, correctly, “He didn't say anything. He didn't come up to address the board.”

Brown said that New Haven “needs to initiate conversations about this issue” but that the CCP likely isn't where the municipality should start, Brown said that New Haven should possibly start start with Allen County Council, if it wants the $105,000-plus for the compatibility upgrade.

That recommendation might not fly, however.

Is there a problem, really?

Allen County Council President Darren Vogt – who was not at Tuesday's meeting but offered some general insights about the issue, at my request – said the type of concern expressed by Poiry is overstated, with regard to where a dispatcher needs to be located in order to provide the most effective service.

“At the end of the day, who cares where they're sitting?” Vogt asked. “What matters is the type of service that is provided.”

Vogt said that given advances in technology, “They (dispatchers) do know where it's coming from. They can see where they're (emergency calls) coming from.”

Vogt said that a regional dispatch center could be a goal in the future – though there is no specific plan in place – and that the CCP's 911 director, Tim Lee, would be best able to answer specific questions regarding the operation of the call center, adding that “stress level, call volume, even something like time of year...all of those kinds of things, those are the things that are taken into consideration.”

“To say that they (dispatchers) have to be sitting in New Haven...the response times would not be diminished, or delayed. That wouldn't happen. That would not be allowed to happen,” Vogt said.

What rights does New Haven have?

Allen County Sheriff Ken Fries, however, does not agree with the stance that location doesn't matter, though he currently sits on the CCP board.

“I have said before that this is a problem,” Fries said Tuesday. “I don't blame New Haven for wanting to keep things as they are – the police chief is responsible for those residents. He wants to do what's best for them. New Haven's mayor wants to do what's best for his residents. And they do pay taxes.”

About those taxes: New Haven's budget, as well as Allen County's budget, is set for Fiscal Year 2014. Vogt's response when asked about New Haven coming forward with an appropriations request from council: From where, exactly?

“Not from any council funds, not at all. It's not there,” Vogt said.

Detailed explanation requested, needed for the public

For my part: I sent a detailed request to Michael Green, a spokesman for the county, seeking information on exactly how the CCP's funding is derived, how it is disbursed, who is responsible for the disbursement and under what types of statutes is funding controlled, among other questions.

Why?

Because this is an issue that residents have a right to understand, in extreme detail. For this issue, it's simply not good enough to have each side present its point of view, I tell what was said, then let the two sides of elected officials and appointees battle it out over who gets to spend monies extracted from taxpayers...while those same taxpayers are left to hope that, at the end of it all, someone made sure their safety is of the highest importance.

The New Haven chief of police is appointed by the mayor of New Haven...who is elected by its residents.

If those individuals have made the determination to not be part of a Fort Wayne/Allen County partnership and are not required by law…that is their choice. But the answer can't be that, on Jan. 15, someone's 911 call in New Haven automatically goes to a dispatch center in Fort Wayne, while New Haven's chief of police is claiming that response time could be affected.

That has to be answered, on the record, that this concern is understood and has been addressed.

The onus is on the CCP to explain how CCP funding is disseminated, why New Haven can or cannot be allocated enough to complete this upgrade, since their residents do pay 911 fees. That doesn't mean that 100 percent reliability will always take place…but at the same time, it should be explained to residents how, exactly, it is known that the functionality currently seen by New Haven will not be diminished.

Everything else, whether it's politics-as-usual, or turf wars, or someone didn't ask politely enough or make the request to the right person fast enough...none of that matters to somebody who's been in a car accident, is in a ditch off Hartzell Road, and is calling for help.

What matters is that New Haven averages about 6,000 emergency calls a year. The dispatching system as it currently works is endorsed by New Haven's police chief, because he believes the current system makes his community more responsive to emergencies.

If New Haven doesn't want to be part of the CCP but residents' tax dollars help fund it, is this argument truly worth having over $105,622.88? When that money would be used to upgrade an emergency communications system?

Without some specific statutes to explain why New Haven shouldn't be able to obtain that funding amount from the CCP...I think not.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. E-mail Elbert Starks III at estarks@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8266.