That 911 call a Matanuska Susitna Borough resident dials when emergency medical, fire or law enforcement help is needed, gets answered promptly, but critical response time depends on a long list of variables.
As it stands now, both the Palmer and Wasilla police departments have public safety answering points or PSAPs. The Borough contracts with Palmer dispatch for all fire, rescue and EMS resources, and for law enforcement calls within Palmer city limits. The Alaska State Troopers use MatCom, a division of the Wasilla Police Dept., as a dispatch for law enforcement calls for unincoporated areas outside Palmer or Wasilla city limits and for the city of Houston. All calls made from a cell phone in the Borough go to Palmer. Dispatchers there determine the location of the caller, then re-route the call to Wasilla, if necessary. It’s the re-routing that is causing problems within the system. Joe Blatschka is with Bothell, Washington – based ADCOMM Engineering.
“The population in the Borough, as everybody knows, shouldn’t be any surprise, is growing as well as the call volume is growing, and that will force at some point some operational and structural changes in 911 dispatch. Staff utilization region – wide is not optimized and consolidating can address all of these issues. There’s a pretty significant improvement in call processing time and call processing flow if you were to consolidate.”
Blatschka’s company recently presented a draft feasibility study on consolidating the two dispatch centers within the Borough at a special meeting of the Borough Assembly and the city councils of Palmer, Wasilla and Houston. Blatschka said there is a framework in state law that allows consolidation. That task will take 5 to 7 months, construction or renovation of a new building and a hike in phone surcharges within the Borough.
Dave Magonette , also with ADCOMM, said the two systems are performing the same functions. They both use the Computer Aided Dispatch system, orCAD, which is the primary tool for tracking and handling incidents, but the CAD’s are not communicating with each other.
“Some 911 callers basically have to tell their story twice in order to get assistance, because of the way calls are routed. There is a potential for uncoordinated responses, and this occurs when emergency medical might be dispatched to a location where law enforcement has also been dispatched, but because they’re dispatched by two different agencies, there is the potential that they may not know each other are responding. “
Magonette says nationwide the most common 911 call is a domestic violence call. If a domestic violence call comes in to Palmer from an unincorporated area, it would be transferred to Wasilla to determine if law enforcement or medical help is needed. If EMS is needed, the call is then re-routed back to Palmer. The bouncing back and fourth forces the caller to tell his or her story multiple times, delaying response time and confusing the record keeping.
“The higher call volume due to the population increases was a big driver, we think, for change. That’s going to get even trickier, because of course, the areas of growth are in those unincorporated areas, which, you’ll remember, are being dispatched by somebody different than the folks who are dispatching EMS.”
But the Alaska State Troopers do not see the consolidation as a boon to statewide law enforcement efforts. Major Matthew Leveque, a deputy AK Trooper director, told the group that the Department of Public Safety would prefer to have a number of dispatch centers in small communities to better serve outlying areas
“We just don’t see a way that we can integrate, because there is no model that supports it, and it would seem to harm our ability to serve all of the citizens of the state. “
Other aspects of the study recommend a reduction in dispatch staffing. Magonette says the Borough spends about $3.5 million annually to provide emergency services. He said the consolidation would not necessarily save the Borough money, in fact, it may cost more, but the service level to the public and to emergency responders would be higher.