Merge 911 centers Costs of an inefficient system should drive consolidations - The Buffalo News

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Merge 911 centers Costs of an inefficient system should drive consolidations

Here's one for 911: We'd like to report some missing logic. And if you can explain why Erie County needs 22 emergency communication centers to handle 911 calls, you might still want to send firefighters to put out the inefficiency-related fiscal flames consuming county taxpayers.

Compared to Monroe and Onondaga counties, which have one call center each, 22 seems like a lot. Even Niagara County has only four, as News reporter Stephen T. Watson recently reported.

But beyond the arithmetic, there's an obvious poor use of resources if the smallest centers handle, on average, only two or three 911 calls each day, while others employ one dispatcher at a time and close overnight. Chautauqua County Sheriff Joseph Gerace, whose county has three centers, got it right when he said that it's not the best delivery system -- it's about protecting local control.

Sorry, that turf-protection line went dead a long time ago. More and more people are switching from land lines to cell phones -- and perhaps are more likely to report an observed traffic accident, crime or fire in progress via their cell phones. All cell phone calls already come to the specially designed call center at downtown Buffalo's still-new Public Safety Campus, and then are routed to a local 911 center if necessary.

That combined 911 center also handles calls for the Buffalo Police Department along with the Erie County Sheriff's Office and the county's Medical Emergency Radio System.

Erie County has 22 public safety answering points, or PSAPs, and 95 call-taking positions. That's a lot of taxpayer-supported positions, although many of them are filled by civilians who are doing much more than merely taking 911 calls.

But merging resources for core-mission efficiency makes sense. Regionalism advocates and a study by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership's Who Does What? Commission in 2001 recommended merging the 26 911 centers that existed back then into 10 to 12 communication centers, which would have saved a couple million dollars a year after mergers. The idea received strong backing from then-County Executive Joel A. Giambra, who pushed for combining all the 911 systems across the county. Reached recently, he called the idea of merging centers a "no-brainer." That would be true if it weren't for the fact that around here change is not only difficult but painful.

Opposition to mergers always emerges, and this particular situation is no different. Police chiefs who oversee the plethora of 911 centers defend the current system, saying that it provides a locally focused service at a reasonable cost and that the dispatchers don't just take 911 calls, they provide support. The problem is, it's costly support.

Maybe the rising cost is exactly the push needed in order to merge operations. As cited in Watson's story, an Erie County Central Police Services analysis found it costs 95 cents per 911 call to operate the consolidated 911 center at the Public Safety Building, while the Helmuth Fire Center costs $25.72 per 911 call and the Springville center costs $22.30 per 911 call.

The suggestion that merging the number of 911 centers has been a bust because of local officials who want to protect their own fiefdoms and the jobs they provide is a more plausible explanation for reluctance. While some in small towns contend that local 911 dispatchers' knowledge of every nook and cranny of their areas provides the best argument for retaining the centers, advancing technology negates the argument.

With rapid technological advances, it's hard to imagine holding onto a costly and inefficient system. But, so far, that system has remained. Until localities can come to some sort of realization that holding onto the past is costly in more ways than one, the debate will continue.

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