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Critics call 911 merger no help


County says it will save money if Sheriff’s Office runs all dispatch operations

HUDSON–Consolidating government services is all the rage these days in the ongoing effort to save money. So an announcement late last week from Columbia County Board of Supervisors Chairman Roy Brown (R-Germantown) about the merger of the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) with the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office seemed like a no-brainer.

But that news was accompanied by word from the chairman that the county is also considering the merger of 911 communications staff with the Sheriff’s Office. And though the announcement from the chairman’s office said the 911 merger is still “in the early stages of research,” public safety officials have already expressed opposition to the proposal.

Since the County 911 Control Center went online at 610 State Street in 1994 and subsequently moved to a space at the Public Safety Building in Greenport in 2003, a majority of the agencies that interact with 911 have had an interest in its independence. Now, supporters of that independence believe they must again let their concerns be known about this most recent move to make 911 part of the Sheriff’s Office.

“This is just the beginning of a process that we have an obligation to follow through with. The Board of Supervisors is committed to combining and strengthening programs with a goal of saving taxpayers’ money and can do it in this instance without causing the loss of any jobs. That’s what it is all about,” Chairman Brown said in the merger announcement press release.

But Captain Scott Brown, State Police Troop K, Zone One Commander at the Livingston barracks told The Columbia Paper Wednesday, “No law enforcement agency should have control of 911, not the Sheriff’s Office or the State Police. I think it should be maintained as separate, independent and impartial.”

Though the captain said he can appreciate the fiscal constraints facing Chairman Brown, he said his main concern is public safety. “From a State Police and operations perspective, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said, adding, “911 dispatchers do an outstanding job.”

While on one hand noting the high level of cooperation between State Police and the Sheriff’s Office, the captain also alluded to the reality that “we’re all police officers, we all want the hot call.” Under the closest car policy now in place, calls are assigned by 911 dispatchers to police agencies based on the nearest police car, which makes it a matter of chance which agency gets the call. Capt. Brown and others who are concerned about the proposed merger say that keeping 911 independent and impartial will ensure that the established protocol stays in place. “We don’t need to change that in my opinion,” the captain said.

State Police Senior Investigator Gary Mazzacano, who also serves as Greenport Fire Chief and is on the Board of Supervisors’ Fire Advisory Committee, said a meeting about the possible merger was conducted by the committee Tuesday night. Chief Mazzacano ultimately could not get to the meeting, but he said he would be interested in finding out exactly where the $175,000 savings mentioned in the press release would come from. He also noted “from a fire service standpoint” that “911 should be dedicated to emergency medical and fire service calls” and not be distracted by having to run license plate numbers and other tasks routinely done by police dispatchers. Currently 911 dispatchers handle only the initial dispatch of police calls then turn them over to the assigned police agency. He said the committee will make a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors about the merger, “but whether they’ll listen to us, who knows.”

Columbia County Fire Coordinator James VanDeusen, who did attend the Tuesday night meeting said, “We’re going to be talking about it and forming a task force.” But in his opinion, “I would not like to see it happen. Across the country 911 centers are separated from police agencies” and concentrate on handling emergency and fire calls. “We’ll have to wait and see how it plays out and a few months from now, we’ll know more, but I’d like to see it stay the same,” Mr. VanDeusen said.

Rob Lopez was appointed director of the county 911 in 2006, and he too questions the merger plan. “First of all, I strongly believe if a merger is to be done, it should be under the umbrella of 911 and not the other way around,” he said this week.

Noting that his department handles the dispatching of 31 fire companies, 8 police agencies on emergency calls, and 5 rescue squads, Mr. Lopez said 911 dispatchers have more training and certifications than police dispatchers. He noted that a merger would be much easier to implement and the same savings would be realized if 911 remained in control rather than the Sheriff’s Office.

Mr. Lopez said that all three surrounding counties Rensselaer, Greene and Dutchess maintain standalone 911 agencies. In Rensselaer and Greene counties they are part of the public safety departments.

The 911 dispatchers “live and breathe” emergency calls and deal with these issues every day, said Mr. Lopez, who believes his 911 operation could easily absorb police dispatchers.

Sheriff David Harrison said the idea of merging 911 centers and Sheriffs’ Offices is nothing new and is in practice in 30 counties throughout the state, with 26 or more 911 centers controlled by the Sheriff’s Office.

“If there wasn’t a significant cost savings [in the merger], we wouldn’t even be talking about it,” said the sheriff.

He said with cross-training, the merge would bring five extra people into the dispatch center, which allows more staffing options. “We’re not reinventing the wheel,” he said.

The sheriff said that the $175,000 cost saving would come from not having to pay law enforcement or communications overtime and from the consolidation of the two budgets into one, with no change in services.

He stressed that no jobs would be lost, no salaries would be cut and that 911 would become another division in the Sheriff’s Office just like security and the jail are now.

The sheriff said he has no interest in making 911 a partisan agency, but rather in making it the best agency it can be. He said that to allay concerns when the 911 center moved to the Public Safety Building, he offered the State Police space there to do their dispatching, but they did not take him upon his offer. When asked about that, Capt. Brown said that the sheriff has been very accommodating but it was up to the State Police hierarchy, which declined.

Meanwhile, at OEM

GREENPORT — Although the proposal to merge the 911 center staff into the Sheriff’s Office has created controversy, County Office of Emergency Management (OEM) Director William Black proposed the consolidation of his office, which is charged with preparing and organizing county, state and federal response to emergencies within the community, with the Sheriff’s Office after researching similar arrangements in other counties.

The consolidation will produce “an immediate modest savings, but ultimately will maximize grant opportunities to fund positions and purchase equipment currently funded through the county budget, which will result in additional future savings,” Mr. Black said in a press release.

He and three deputy directors will continue to give a report to the county Public Safety Committee each month. The OEM will become a division of the Sheriff’s Office and report to the sheriff for personnel and operational issues.  Filling of positions will be evaluated only as they become vacant.  One existing vacant deputy director position will not be filled producing a savings of $2,500 to the county.

The Local Emergency Planning Commission, which exists within the OEM, will remain there with the salary of its chairman, Thomas Lamphear, funded through grants rather than the county budget. The consolidation will become final with approval by the Board of Supervisors at its June meeting. Since the matter has already received Public Safety Committee acceptance, Mr. Brown didn’t see any impediment to its approval by the full board.

To contact Diane Valden email

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