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Central dispatch in 'early stages'

BY Carolyn Muyskens - cmuyskens@chronicle-tribune.com

Though plans are still in early stages, central dispatch is looking less like a possibility and more like a concrete future for Grant County.

“We are still in the very beginning stages of this,” said Marion police chief Angela Haley.

But some details of what combining the county’s four dispatch centers would look like are coming into focus with a proposal that was presented to the Grant County Public Safety Operations Center Policy Board, the committee that is taking charge of the project.

The Grant County Council gave its approval to move forward Wednesday night and the proposal will move through Marion and Gas City boards and city councils next to ensure the project has support from every unit of government involved.

Currently, Grant County has four different dispatch centers that provide emergency communications – the City of Marion, Grant County Sheriff’s Department, the Gas City Police Department and Marion General Hospital. Between those centers the county has 32 dispatcher positions.

When someone dials 911 from a cell phone the call is picked up by the Grant County Sheriff’s Department’s dispatchers. But if the emergency is in Gas City, or Jonesboro, the call must be transferred from the Sheriff’s Department to Gas City’s dispatch operations before a dispatcher in Gas City can tell a Gas City or Jonesboro police officer to head to the scene.

The time between those transfers is critical in emergency situations.

“You have to tell your story twice,” Haley said. “That should never happen. It really should be one stop shopping.”

With the current setup, different agencies across the county are connected to different dispatch centers. Marion dispatches Marion police, Marion Fire Department and others, while the Grant County Sheriff’s Department dispatches Sheriff’s deputies and departments in smaller communities like Fairmount, Swayzee and Van Buren.

Central dispatch will mean one site and one team dispatching every public safety agency in the county. The proposed site for the center is the Salin Bank building, currently home to Marion Design Co.

Dispatchers at the Grant County Council meeting were worried by the idea of a smaller total number of dispatchers handling the many agencies in the county.

“Just having three or four people in there with the phones ringing off the hook, especially in any kind of emergency, you don’t have enough people to answer all the phones and get all the officers where they belong,” said Debbie Carmichael, who works for the Grant County Sheriff’s Department.

The proposed dispatch center would be staffed by 18 people. Across the four dispatch centers there are 32 dispatch positions budgeted for, although officials said not all of those positions are currently filled.

That is another point of worry for current dispatchers, one that Haley said she is sympathetic to. The police chief used to be a dispatcher herself.

“We’re impacting people’s livelihoods, their families,” Haley said.

“I care about the people that work for me, and I want them to be treated fairly as they move from my center. I don’t think that dispatchers have gotten the credit that they deserve. It’s a profession to be proud of,” Haley added.

Preliminary estimates provided to the board show a cost savings of around $600,000 from the personnel side alone.

There is still a lot to be decided, and not every government unit has signed onto the plan, although it was approved unanimously by the operations policy board which has representatives from each agency.

Approval to pay for engineering and design work on the proposed site at Salin Bank was tabled Wednesday because the council wanted to advertise the cost publicly before approval.

Dispatchers present at the meeting, however, voiced fears that they were being left out of the process.

“We’re just asking questions because nobody is telling us anything, it’s just between everybody else and not the dispatchers and we’re just asking questions about how it’s going to work,” Carmichael said.

Haley said she would like to hear from dispatchers who do the job every day.

“I do think we need to have the input. I used to work in the radio room but that was 20 years ago, we need to get input from not just the managers but also the people that will actually be working in that room,” Haley said.