There is enough compelling evidence that public safety could be improved and cost savings realized for a two-person advisory team to advise the Board of Selectmen to consider a formal study on turning local emergency communications over to a specialized regional dispatch organization.
Jeff Capeci and Neil Chaudhary have been researching that idea for several months, gathering data as well as hearing from local police, volunteer fire, and ambulance representatives. Mr Capeci is a former Legislative Council chairman, and Mr Chaudhary is a current councilman, although their participation in this project has nothing to do with their council service.
Their recommendations come despite opposition from the local Police and Fire Commissions, and concerns voiced by Newtown Volunteer Ambulance Corps leadership.
At a June session, Police Commission members generally expressed skepticism about the value of moving dispatching operations out of town. And on August 5 police commissioners told Mr Capeci and Mr Chaudhary that they do not want the town’s radio dispatching outsourced to a regional center.
In a July 28 letter to the first selectman, Fire Commission Chairman Rob Manna, said his seven-member board had discussed the proposal to move dispatching and had concerns about the reliability of connections between the town’s fire services and an out-of-town communications center — and asked that more details and responses to other concerns be brought to the commission.
Ambulance Chief Mike Collins also expressed a preference to seeing dispatch services remain local, with personnel who are most familiar with Newtown’s roadways and neighborhoods.
Among key findings reported to selectmen this week was the news that taxpayers could potentially trim about 30 percent from the current $1.03 million operating budget by consolidating emergency dispatch operations into a regional center in Torrington. The research team also noted that such a move could improve overall public safety and response time.
They opened their presentation praising the work of local emergency dispatchers, noting the local operation and personnel have been recognized nationally by their peers for the work they did on 12/14 and in the ensuing weeks after the shooting at Sandy Hook School.
“This report is not an evaluation of the value of current dispatchers who serve our community with the highest level of integrity and honor. They were recognized nationally for their efforts that went beyond expectation during the tragedy that struck Newtown,” the report states. “We offer our thanks and respect…for their contribution to our town.”
The Prospect Option
The pair analyzed merging emergency communications into a regional dispatch center in Prospect as well, finding fewer advantages to that option. The presentation continued with Mr Capeci and Mr Chaudhary reviewing some industry-specific terminology that peppered the report, how emergency dispatch works from a technical standpoint, and discussed their methodology for pursuing the data and arriving at their recommendation.
By definition, Newtown’s emergency dispatch center is a Public Safety Answering Point or PSAP, where its staff utilizes a computer aided dispatch (CAD) system to identify all 911 calls, guide responders to callers when required, and interact with responders and callers.
Certain information and data collected is funneled into a record management system (RMS), which according to Mr Capeci, provides analytical resources for administrative, field and investigative staff, and allows users to quickly retrieve records and manage multiple involvements.
The pair explained that regionalizing involves a situation where at least two separate jurisdictions merge emergency communications functions. They said that up until this year, Newtown received some financial benefit from the state because the local facility served both Newtown and the Borough of Newtown, a separately recognized community located around Main Street.
But First Selectman Pat Llodra said Emergency Communications Director Maureen Will has already been notified that those nominal grants the town receives because its dispatch center is technically handling two jurisdictions, albeit overlapping, will end this year. And Mr Chaudhary said he expects that consolidations that are being encouraged by state public safety officials will eventually be mandated.
“There are no state mandates on the horizon, but it is prudent to look beyond the horizon because regional mandates could come,” Mr Chaudhary said.
Possible Safety Improvements
In examining information collected, he and Mr Capeci said they did not expect to learn that regionalizing would enhance public safety. But utilizing such an operation could create faster response times because the call center employs a significantly larger number of dispatchers cross-trained to be familiar with all municipalities involved.
In the event of a significant incident in Newtown, Mr Capeci said those additional dispatchers would all play a role in fielding and responding to a spike in related call volume. He said a regional center might also mandate a greater level of training and professional development above state or current local standards, and that staff at a regional center would be exclusively devoted to emergency communications, and would not be occupied with other duties like greeting visitors to the local police station.
The officials said the Prospect Center — Northwest Public Safety — is dispatching the small Middlebury police force along with numerous fire and ambulance services, including some limited radio traffic involving Newtown volunteer ambulance responders. The Litchfield County Dispatch has been handling Torrington Police communications for five years, as well as a number of other town fire and ambulance services with a staff that includes a former Newtown dispatcher.
Mr Capeci told selectmen that he and Mr Chaudhary did not perform an in-depth analysis of each dispatch center, did not explore other regional options beyond those two centers, and did not tackle the proposal of creating a regional center in Newtown.
Concerns about regionalizing included leaving the local police station “dark” during certain evening and weekend hours when dispatchers are now present to meet any walk-in parties and direct them to assistance they may require, and to provide state-mandated warrant verification for officers in the field.
They said concerns that regional dispatchers might not know Newtown is overstated considering that only one current Newtown dispatcher lives in town, and that most contemporary dispatching functions are driven by the CAD systems directing dispatchers what agencies to send to calls, while mapping call locations, routes for responders, and background details like possible caller history and other critical details responders need to know en route.
Other Concerns Voiced
There were other concerns as Newtown prepares to move forward with a pricy upgrade to dispatch hardware and software. Both officials said whatever technology Newtown settles on will have to interface seamlessly and effectively in the event of a merger, and they recommend a single vendor handle all or most of the hardware/software installations and ongoing support.
Mr Capeci said regional personnel could also visit Newtown to talk with responders and officials to become more familiar with local agency needs and dispatch protocols. Discussing cost for services, Mr Chaudhary noted that the more municipalities participating in a regionalization, the greater the efficiencies and potential taxpayer savings could result.
In reviewing the physical distance between Newtown and the Prospect and Torrington centers, Mr Chaudhary reminded selectmen that the entire State of Texas is served by only three dispatch centers, while the comparatively tiny State of Connecticut currently has 106 PSAPs.
He said that if Newtown regionalizes, the town will still be required to maintain a backup dispatch operation, which will be located in the Emergency Operations Center at Fairfield Hills and go into operation if communication ties to the regional center are lost because of a weather-related or other disaster.
Looking forward, the researchers said Newtown should continue to pursue educating the public and stakeholders regarding possible regionalization, its benefits and risks as they are further developed.
“Regionalization is safe, and not cost prohibitive,” Mr Chaudhary told selectmen. “The time is right for Newtown to pursue further investigation [of regionalization].”
Mr Capeci encouraged the town to continue identifying potential partners, costs, risks and benefits, and funding a study to “determine the best path to regionalization.”
Mrs Llodra said it is the selectmen’s job to “step back and review” the data collected and the full and detailed report generated by Mr Capeci and Mr Chaudhary, as well as a statewide report recently generated on regionalizing those services. She said if selectmen determine there is merit to regionalizing at that point, they will refer the issue to the council, which ultimately must act on outsourcing such services by Charter.