Editor’s note: This commentary is by Charlie Baker, who is executive director of the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission.
For the past year and a half, eight Chittenden County municipalities banded together to take a fresh look at how we dispatch emergency services (police, fire and emergency medical services (EMS)) throughout the region. The current systems do work, and we appreciate the fine efforts by dispatchers who perform these essential duties 24/7/365. Two recent studies indicated this could all work even more effectively and efficiently under a regional umbrella, as compared with the many separate and independent call-taking and dispatching systems currently in place.
Regionalizing essential services is not a new idea in Chittenden County. Champlain Water District provides safe, clean drinking water to a number of cities and towns. Chittenden Solid Waste District provides a wide array of solid waste disposal, hazardous waste collection, and recycling services throughout the county. Similarly, Green Mountain Transit provides public bus service to a number of communities. All three were formed by the citizens of our cities and towns in order to provide these essential public services more effectively and efficiently than if each municipality had to provide them on their own.
Public safety dispatch is complex and multidimensional. Blending independent systems and staff into a regional operation will take time and must be done in a thoughtful manner. That’s why we have moved slowly and researched thoroughly, without any predetermined conclusions, whether regional dispatch for Chittenden County was even a good idea. Although it is done throughout the nation, that doesn’t necessarily make it right for us.
Interestingly, the seeds for this were actually planted back in 1967, when a prior local study urged that regional dispatch should be considered. In more recent times, the town of Milton has contracted with the town of Colchester for emergency services dispatch. The town of Shelburne already contracts with more than 30 agencies to provide dispatching services. Other municipalities provide their own, or rely on others, for this essential service.
Typically, in our area, this is all a two-stage process: You call 911, explain your emergency, and then they have to contact the agency needed, and explain things again to initiate a response. In a regional dispatch center, this process can be simplified, and can save up to 70 seconds of time in getting police/fire/EMS on their way. With dispatchers working together, rather than alone in separate locations, there is more “backup” when multiple emergencies occur at the same time. With updated computer-aided dispatching tools, dispatchers will be able to access resources in neighboring communities via radio. This currently requires a phone call to the neighboring community’s dispatch center. There will also be more opportunities for training and career advancement than when working in separate agencies.
We know there are still many questions to resolve regarding human resources/staffing and interagency communications, to name just two. Please know that the town meeting vote in seven municipalities across the county will not change anything overnight. An affirmative vote is simply to form the legal entity: the Chittenden County Public Safety Authority. An affirmative vote will allow the important work, research, and conversation to continue, to determine whether regional dispatch is right for Chittenden County, and if so, how best to implement the changes needed, and when.
After the CCPSA works out more of the details over the next year, each municipal elected body will have to make a separate decision about whether to commit staff and funding. This vote only forms the CCPSA, it does not commit either dollars or staff to the effort.
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The Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission helped support this process over the last 18 months. I encourage you to consider regional dispatch as an opportunity to improve public safety services in our communities.
Editor’s note: The towns/cities voting on the measure are Burlington, Colchester, Milton, Shelburne, South Burlington, Williston and Winooski.