Borough eyes emergency dispatch upgrade

Emergency dispatch operations in the Mat Su could be put out to bid, if a Requests For Proposals outlined at  Tuesday night’s Matanuska Susitna Borough Assembly meeting is successful.

The Borough’s 911 system is split into two call centers, and that has occasionally caused confusion when emergency calls come in. Matanuska Sustina Borough manager John Moosey says a study done three years ago pointed out deficiencies in the system, but was not successful in bringing about changes.

“We see there is significant room for safety improvements that need to be made, and this is our attempt to do so.”

The Borough-owned system is operated at locations in Palmer and Wasilla, and both are further split into computer and dispatch components. Emergency calls go to Palmer operators, and, if necessary, Palmer dispatchers alert town police to handle law enforcement duties. Calls not handled by Palmer police are transferred to the Wasilla center, and dispatchers there alert Wasilla police or Alaska State Troopers.

Borough IT director Eric Wyatt says sometimes, a call does get dropped, not because of inefficiency of operators, but because of the nature of cell phones.

But the complelxity of the system is a challenge. Wyatt told the Assembly the Borough currently writes half a dozen checks to pay individual vendors for maintaining the various components of the system, and the plan to put the emergency dispatch service out to bid could consolidate payments to one vendor, while consolidating the system itself. For instance, Palmer dispatches Borough emergency services.

“And that means fire EMS, rescue and animal care. And we have currently contracted with the city of Palmer to provide the manning to do that.”

The Borough maintians the computer assisted dispatch or CAD system in Palmer, and Wyatt says needed upgrades there are on hold until a new vendor is in place. The city of Wasilla owns and maintains the computer side of it’s emergency call center, but is paid by the Borouigh to house operators and take 911 calls.

Wyatt told the Assembly that paying for all the components of the current system costs  $1.2  million annually in telecommunications contracts, call taker payroll and computer maintenance, and that a new contract would cost at least that much.

The 911 system is funded in part by a surcharge on every Borough phone line. That surcharge has grown from 85 cents a month to $2.00 a month for each phone line since 2009.  A change in state statute would be necessary to allow expanded usage of 911 surcharge funds to cover all aspects of the emergency dispatch system, if the RFP is successful in drawing in a singel operator.

“The Alaska state statute currently talks about the use of 911 funds being for the 911 call taking portion of an incident, and we would like to change the wording in the statute that would open it up to allow us to cover more of the dispatch portion of the action as well.”

Wyatt said the Borough has funds to pay for the needed computer upgrades, and that the bid proposal is not designed to save money, but to provide better service to the community.

“The fund balance in our 911 is just over 4.3 million dollars. So there is adequate to do what is necessary to upgrade our systems to make them industry standard and to make our population safer. ”

And he said, a new vendor would allow the Borough to get out of the computer support component of the system.

The city of Palmer is interested in pursuing the contract, according to Palmer city manager Nathan Wallace

Wyatt says Palmer and Wasilla would be possible applicants for the five year contract, but the RFP could attract interest from a provider outside the Borough. He suggested that national carriers, such as Verizon and AT&T, could be attracted to do the work.