Dispatch service saves lives while city costs increase
Static silence is what any radio scanner first kicks out when powered on. But within seconds, the airwaves come alive, more often than not, with the sound of communications from county dispatch. Dispatch is the central traffic hub for not only law enforcement, fire crews and ambulance, but also overall public safety. They coordinate everything from daily procedures to rescue efforts. Anyone who listens to a dispatcher at work knows how busy the system is. However, just listening reveals little about the complexities of running such a service, not to mention its expenses.
Recently, every town in Carbon County paid a share of the overall dispatch bill, which came to a total of $910,000 for 2009 - 2010. Of this total, the Utah Department of Public Safety (DPS) covered half and Carbon County paid for about 23 percent. The rest was initially paid for and continues to be covered by a combination of cities' funds, other public funds and school district funding.
Such a system of payment has not always been utilized. Over the past 10 years, the county has gone from paying the entire half not funded by the state to its current level which requires county towns and cities to pay for their system usage. This has proven controversial with some smaller towns, notably Helper City, which contributed $18,700 under protest for the past year's dispatch bill, which showed an 8 percent increase. Many members of the Helper City Council have wanted to know why this amount has increased significantly during the past few years.
The state of Utah runs the local dispatch center. However, its decisions are made by two boards. One is a state board and the other is a local advisory committee comprised of mayors, county officials, police and fire chiefs, as well as many others. Budgets are created by these two boards and the state legislature.
In the past, Carbon County and the state would pay a majority of costs. However, the balance has shifted to the current fifty-fifty payment system. As costs have risen, the county as a whole has continued to pay the same amount, which has left towns and cities to make up the difference.
Increased costs have been noticeable, according to Margin Hansen, local director of the dispatch center, "Over the last couple of years we had to play catch-up to get back at the fifty-fifty mark. We no longer have overtime and I'm only spending what I have to," she said.
A number of other factors have played into the rising costs, notably staff costs. While a rookie dispatcher might start out at $12.95 an hour, most local dispatchers are experienced. Of the 14 current dispatchers, the average time on the job is over 15 years. Hansen explained that dispatch has not seen any wage increases for a while. The last cost of living raise took place nearly two years ago. Because over 25,000 square miles are covered by the center, experienced dispatchers are a logistical necessity.
"How do you cut back on 911 services and officer safety?" asked Hansen. "You can't."
Any potential dispatcher is required to have numerous certifications, such as three months of book theory on training manuals, fire, and police officer standards and pass and rescue, to name a few. Dispatch candidates must also pass a test which can only be taken twice. A dispatcher must also be supervised for the first six months on duty.
Another factor affecting the center's budget is calls from cell phones from out of the area, because charges placed on their area codes go back to the area code of origin.
"The money goes somewhere else. That's why we need to save our 911 monies," said Hansen.
While every area calculates its dispatch bill differently, in Carbon County, it's based on a percentage of calls. This percentage includes fire departments, police and ambulance calls.
"I would really like to have another way if someone could come up with one, but everyone likes the number of calls," said Hansen.
In the future, Hansen indicated that costs will continue to rise, however, not as dramatically as in the past few years, because the percentages have leveled off. She noted that the state legislature is a big factor.