With the 9-1-1 tax sunsetting by the next Legislative session, dispatch centers around the state are looking at different models to fill the gaps created by inadequate funding

by: RAMONA MCCALLISTER/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - In the Prineville Dispatch, the communications specialists handle calls in Crook County, and all other calls are transferred to the other 911 centers. The staff sits in front of six screens, and must coordinate a host of tasks simultaneously while responding to calls. They answer calls for emergency and non-emergency calls, and must dispatch fire, police, and medics. They must understand mapping systems, and be able to utilize their resources during an emergency.

The 9-1-1 tax is about to sunset, and 9-1-1 centers in Oregon are struggling with whether to lobby the Legislature for a change, or just kick the can down the road for a status quo.
   Currently, approximately 60 percent of the usage fees for the local 9-1-1 dispatch center is paid for by the Prineville Police Department. Another 30 percent is paid by the Crook County Sheriff’s Office. The remaining 10 percent of usage fees include Crook County Fire and Rescue and other agencies.
   The user fees for the Prineville Police Department were $276,000 for the current year, $142,000 for the Sheriff’s Office, and $45,000 for CCFR. Each organization or entity is prorated according to the amount of usage.
    “We’re still working with our regional partners, and trying to come up with a model that is going to meet the needs of everyone involved,” said Prineville Police Department Chief, Eric Bush. “We are currently involved in discussions with the Jefferson County 9-1-1 center, and the tri-county communications 9-1-1 center — which covers Gilliam, Wheeler, and Sherman counties (tri-com). The model we’re looking at is fairly unique — it’s not the straight-forward consolidation model that most people who are involved in the 9-1-1 community are looking at.”
   He said it is called virtual consolidation. They keep all three centers open, but essentially manage it as one organization.
   “There are a lot of efficiencies to be gained doing it that way,” noted Bush. “There are cost savings for some, and not so much cost savings for others.”
   He said that this is because some entities are in better financial health than others. He said that Crook County has the potential to save money, and it would give them the coverage that is needed. Currently, the majority of the time, the dispatch center is fine in regards to staffing.
   He gave the example of a 9-1-1 call that involved a large fire, and one dispatcher was on duty.
   “That person was responsible for taking all the 9-1-1 calls and handling all the radio traffic by themselves. It was clearly an impossible situation.”
    He said another dispatcher was there to help within several minutes, but he said a lot can happen in those few minutes. He added that there is one dispatcher on duty the majority of the time.
   “You can go from zero to 100 miles per hour in a 9-1-1 center in the flip of a switch,” remarked Bush. “One large car crash, one out-of-control fire, or one significant safety event, and the dispatcher who is going from literally doing nothing can be instantly overwhelmed.”
   He said they try to balance their staff to prepare for those situations, by mitigating their ability to provide good public safety communications to the public and to the first responders.
   In the discussion about 9-1-1 emergencies, Bush illustrated the fact that police officers also respond to emergencies that involve CPR, for example. Bush said that almost any officer who has been in law enforcement more than a couple of years has probably responded to a cardiac arrest. This is just one group of first responders, and does not include paramedics. It is also just one kind of emergency, which also lends itself to the gravity of seriousness that 9-1-1 plays in public safety.
    “The 9-1-1 community is approaching the politics at the state level,” said Bush. “They are looking at it two different ways. One strategy is, ‘do we actually go to the Legislature to plan to fix what is wrong with 91-1- at the state level?’ That would require a substantial amount of legislation that may be challenging and controversial.”
   He said the other action is to keep it simple, and give the Governor one clean bill that he could put his name on and would have the best chance for success. He said that this extends the sunset and provides a status quo, but it also means that the 9-1-1 community continues to “kick the can down the road.”
    “The 9-1-1 center is key to when someone has an emergency,” commented Crook County Sheriff Jim Hensley. “That is how you get law enforcement, ambulance, or fire. That is the initial start for calling for help. I have seen times over the years when there was one dispatcher on. I have been standing there when multiple 9-1-1 calls come in.”
   He said that when someone calls for 9-1-1, they expect someone to answer and stay on the phone with them.
   “If you have two or three 91-1- calls coming in, that dispatcher has to prioritize.”
   He added that it may be several people calling in for the same incident, but all calls have to be answered.
   Hensley said that the 9-1-1 dispatch center is important, and they need to fund it to where the dispatchers can answer calls like they should. He said that the model that the local dispatch is looking at by consolidating with Jefferson County and tri-com makes sense.
   “It’s a cost savings for everybody.”
   He said that each community has their own major events, and other dispatch centers can help cover those gaps.
   Bush emphasized that there is currently not a timeline on the consolidation effort with Jefferson County and tri-com.
   “There is a lot of work to be done on determining what kind of infrastructure work is still yet to be done, and to bring the technology to fruition,” said Bush.
   He said that they have to get a commitment from their partners before they are willing to move forward and invest time and money.
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