With a state deadline coming up, plans are shaping up for Madison County to consolidate its 911 centers — but nothing is yet decided.
The state has mandated that all counties with a population over 250,000 reduce their 911 operations by 50 percent. In St. Clair County, that meant reducing eight public safety answering points (or PSAPs) to four, and Madison County will need to turn 16 PSAPs into eight.
Most PSAPs are run by individual police departments, and there have been previous consolidations: for example, Maryville 911 calls have been answered by the Glen Carbon telecommunicators for several years.
The law was approved last summer, while also creating a state fee for all 911 calls, rather than the various county-level fees that had been imposed. In Madison County, that meant instead of 64 cents locally collected, it will be 85 cents collected by the state and then dispersed. The excess funds are intended to promote 911 access in counties that do not currently have it.
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But most dispatchers are also responsible for a number of other tasks, including filing paperwork, providing documents, assisting people walking in off the street, and other work unrelated to 911, so it’s unclear how many positions would actually be reduced once the plan comes into place, officials said.
This is a topic that myself, board members, chiefs and everyone in law enforcement have been talking about for a couple of years.
Collinsville Police Chief Steve Evans
Terence McFarland, director of Madison County’s 911 Emergency Telephone System Board, said it will be up to the individual departments how they staff their communication centers once the 911 PSAPs are consolidated. It may even be that the individual departments still dispatch officers directly, so a 911 call would go into the PSAP and then be routed to the department for dispatching a police response.
Regardless, the ETSB board is mandated to come up with a plan to consolidate Madison County down to eight 911 centers, which also means that the various law enforcement agencies will need to agree on computer systems, staffing, policy and other issues. A subcommittee comprised of police chiefs, dispatchers and other law enforcement officials has been working for months on a plan to implement the consolidation.
McFarland said there have been multiple options considered, but the subcommittee has narrowed down to one option they are considering the most seriously.
Under that plan, consolidation would take place in this way, with call estimates based on 2016 call volume:
▪ Wood River Police, who currently covers Hartford, Roxana and South Roxana as well, would take on East Alton and Bethalto with a combined total of 7,552 calls.
▪ Granite City Police would take on Pontoon Beach, Madison and Venice with a total of 20,392 calls.
▪ Troy Police would take on Highland with 3,828 calls.
▪ Edwardsville Police will absorb the SIUE campus and police department with 6,838 calls.
▪ Glen Carbon Police will continue to cover Maryville with 6,365 calls.
▪ The Madison County Sheriff’s Department will continue as-is with 27,695 calls.
▪ Collinsville Police will continue as-is with 10,319 calls.
▪ Alton Police will continue as-is with 20,813 calls.
That is only one of several plans, however, and aspects of other plans are still in consideration. Collinsville Police Chief Steve Evans, who also serves on the ETSB board, said the recommendation is by no means set in stone.
“This is a topic that myself, board members, chiefs and everyone in law enforcement have been talking about for a couple of years,” Evans said. “We don’t know where we’re going to land. The subcommittee’s job now is talking to each of the agencies, show them the plan and find out if this can be done. We don’t have all the answers to that yet.”
The Sheriff’s Department has the highest call volume in Madison County at more than 27,000 calls per year. It averages out to about 76 calls per day. But two other call centers receive more than 20,000 calls a year: Alton and Granite City, with another 10,000 for Collinsville.
In keeping with the trends of the times, the vast majority of calls are from wireless phones instead of landlines. In 2009, 67 percent of 911 calls in Madison County came from wireless phones; by 2016, it was up to 82 percent, steadily climbing each year.
Some of the challenges have been how to consolidate PSAPs using very different technology; some have up-to-date radio and dispatch systems, while others are using what they termed as “strings and tin cans.”
Still, most of the bugs have been worked out of the system and the division of 911 funding is also being worked out, according to committee members.
“I have felt all along that the agencies picking up extra calls should receive funding from the 911 board,” said Richard Schardan, chairman of the ETSB board and retired police chief of Maryville. “But it’s going to come down to what the state says.”
That will still be an issue once the state’s divisions are worked out: should Wood River residents be forced to shoulder all the costs of 911 for five other municipalities without external funding? But officials say that will mostly be up to the state.
“To sit here and guarantee you that (full reimbursement) will be the case, I can’t do that,” McFarland said at a recent meeting of the subcommittee. “I would hope it’s a probability, but the state representatives decide where the money goes, and they want to build up places that don’t have 911 service.”
A major stumbling block has been technology and the cost to implement it. McFarland said that right now, half the PSAPs in Madison County use a computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system called New World Systems.
“They’re all connected through fiberoptics and are able to see booking and records and communicate messages back and forth between agencies,” he said.
But the other half of the county uses a variety of different systems, and they don’t all talk to each other. Not all departments use the same radio systems, either.
127,627 911 calls in Madison County in 2016
“One of the challenges to consolidation has been radio communication, because we don’t have a single radio system,” Evans said. “What we use (in Collinsville), it works for us, but it doesn’t allow that interconnectivity between agencies.”
So while some of the choices in consolidation have been driven by call volume and physical proximity, others have been guided by whether the computers will easily be able to talk to each other, McFarland said.
“It would be simpler if everybody had the same CAD,” he said. “It would make it smoother and give us more options.”
But the cost of implementing new computer systems adds to the cost of the consolidation itself, which has yet to be fully determined.
McFarland said the increased 911 fee may be accessible via grants for one-time expenses. However, that may not be easy to get, he said.
“In St. Clair County, they requested a grant for about $350,000, which is not much when you’re talking about consolidating PSAPs,” he said. St. Clair County’s grant application was turned down, he said.
Meanwhile, some of the agencies taking on more territory may have to increase staff by as much as double, and they are not sure where the money will be coming from. Once the state issues funds to the county, it is within the county’s 911 board’s discretion to disperse it among the PSAPs. But how much money will they get, and when?
“We are still getting the money, though the state is still behind in paying us,” McFarland said.
The board must have a plan finalized soon, or the state could withhold 911 surcharge funds that are used to partially fund emergency operations. The plan must be executed in a little over a year: August 2018 is the final date.
McFarland believes they should be on track to meet their deadlines. The subcommittee is still working on the plan, but once it is submitted and approved by the ETSB board, it then goes to the state.
“Once we get that finalized plan and the state approves it, our intention would be to have it completed by August 2018,” McFarland said.