Metro-East News

Stress levels were high as 911 merger deadline loomed

Explaining the changes made to 911 calls in Swansea

Swansea Police Chief Steve Johnson discussed in this 2017 interview the village's decision to have Belleville handle its 911 calls after Illinois mandated the consolidation of public safety answering points.
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Swansea Police Chief Steve Johnson discussed in this 2017 interview the village's decision to have Belleville handle its 911 calls after Illinois mandated the consolidation of public safety answering points.

As a state deadline loomed in order for St. Clair County to complete the consolidation of 911 answering centers, stress levels seemed to increase among officials at Emergency Telephone Systems Board and the Village of Swansea, the final public safety answering point that was absorbed into another agency.

St. Clair County had to reduce the number of 911 answering centers from eight to four under a state law mandating PSAPs in counties with more than 250,000 residents be cut in half by July 1.

O’Fallon and Fairview Heights combined their 911 call centers. The Cahokia and Centreville PSAPs both had the county-owned CENCOM pick up its 911 calls.

East St. Louis also has its own PSAP.

On June 21, Swansea was the last to complete consolidation requirements in the county, when it had Belleville take on the village’s 911 calls.

Frustration seemed to brew between ETSB staff and Swansea Police Chief Steve Johnson according to emails, which were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

In an email in late May, ETSB Operations Manager Randy Randolph said there were concerns about Swansea not completing the transition soon enough.

“As we had spoken previously, our staff had concerns that AT&T would be spread too thin during the 11th hour to facilitate the move,” Randolph wrote. “Unfortunately, that seems to be the case as AT&T is pushing for the week of June 19th due to technician availability. It will be difficult/dangerous if not impossible to move Swansea and complete the transition for O’Fallon at the same time if we do not have enough resources.”

Randolph’s comments irked Johnson.

“This is the second email you sent to everyone on the list condemning Swansea,” Johnson said. “I respectfully request you stop sending emails to everyone with this in it, including my subordinates. If you feel the need you can send them to just me and I will answer them appropriately.”

ETSB Director Herb Simmons stepped in to defend Randolph.

“Chief, there is no one trying to start anything, what is being stated is the facts as you better than anyone knows,” Simmons wrote. “My office has a job to do, just as you do, and should this last part of the mandated consolidation plan not be completed on time as the law requires, and we lose funding, it isn’t going to be due to us not doing our job.”

Johnson responded that his staff was working hard to complete state-mandated consolidation professionally, even though it wasn’t what they wanted.

“The ‘11th hour’ comments just sounded like we haven’t done anything. But the real deal is we have worked our tails off on this for one-and-a-half years trying to work the best for Swansea,” Johnson said. “Working with a much larger entity means sometimes we have to wait on their replies and, as you know, sometimes larger wheels take longer to spin up. We can take the blunt of those issues to just ensure we keep getting along and it is a smooth consolidation.”

In an interview Simmons said the agencies needed to finalize the consolidation by the July 1 deadline.

“I think at that point in time, because it had been going on for so long, and there was so much uncertainty of what their plan was going to be, and the clock was ticking away, everyone’s stress level was up, but we were able to get through it,” Simmons said.

Johnson said Swansea took so long to complete its consolidation process because it was thoroughly researching the matter.

The department was involved in “careful contemplation, critical thinking and evaluation for over a year and a half,” Johnson said adding there were days he had three to four meetings on the topic.

Johnson said the police department studied how other jurisdictions carried out consolidations, spoke to managers of the new facilities, and even tried to get state legislators involved.

“We have carefully assessed how consolidation has gone within St. Clair County and learned from some of their speed bumps,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he had wanted to try to take legal action to fight the consolidation mandate, but the village ultimately decided not to because the cost would be too high and the village would most likely lose.

Cost of consolidation

As the consolidation process took place, Swansea had to buy new equipment to be able to connect with Belleville including adding a fiber line, installing new cameras and changing its radio system.

So far the village has spent more than $53,800 on infrastructure and equipment costs, and it has $500 a month payments to Clearwave Communications for internet broadband for the 911 consolidation.

As part of the move to Belleville, Swansea is slated to pay Belleville about $309,000 during the 2017-18 fiscal year, and about $316,500 during the 2018-19 fiscal year, according to an intergovernmental agreement between the two municipalities.

This allowed Belleville to hire Swansea’s four telecommunicators onto its staff.

However, Swansea could have paid just $10 per call if it had gone to the county operated CENCOM, according to emails between the village and the ETSB.

At 21,000 calls for service per year, the village would have paid about $210,000 a year if it had consolidated with CENCOM.

“We’re always so cautious about, ‘it’s the cheapest route.’ That’s great, but does that work in emergency services,” Johnson said. “I could buy a flashlight at Walmart, but if I want a flashlight that truly works for 12 hours, all through the night being dropped left and right that a police officer is carrying for the next 10 years, you’re going to be buy a nicer flashlight.”

Swansea would not have had someone dedicated to the village, who may know the area and the landmarks, he added. Also the village would have had to share a radio frequency with 10 to 12 other agencies in a single talk group.

“When you call CENCOM, almost every time a different person answers the phone,” Johnson said.

By going to Belleville, Swansea gets an employee per shift who was dedicated to answering its calls, but would also be answering Belleville calls as well when needed, Johnson said.

The dispatchers now dedicated to Swansea, based in Bellevile, also watch the village’s surveillance cameras, Johnson said.

“Financially, I didn’t love that because that’s more expensive. but as a police chief with 28 years of experience who knows how emergencies don’t happen on clock work, there are weird times when you normally wouldn’t have extra staff on. … as a police chief it’s a smart way to go,” Johnson said.

To pick up the ancillary duties carried out by telecommunicators, Swansea added civilian police aides, who are paid less than their predecessors.

The aides answer phone calls, act as a filter on non-emergency phone calls, help with booking, take walk-in reports of minor nature, fingerprinting, sex offender registration, cash bonds, data entry, handle and maintain evidence records, which frees up an officer, Johnson said. Aides may even clean and detail police cars during night shifts.

The six aides — five of whom are part-time — are scheduled to work between 8 a.m. and 2 or 3 a.m. during the week. Friday night going into Saturday morning, they’ll be scheduled to work until 4 a.m. They also won’t start work until 10 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday mornings, Johnson said.

Was it the right call?

From Simmons’ perspective, he said Swansea could have saved money by going with CENCOM.

The charge was previously $15 a call, but it was reduced to $10 a call recently.

“I project hopefully that $10 cost will go down a little bit, because of call volume. As more agencies come on board, we’re able to reduce that cost, based on the study that we had done. That’s making sure we have a small percentage of cushion for our infrastructure needs we have to do, any equipment replacement or things of that sort,” Simmons said.

Simmons even questions whether Swansea really has 21,000 calls for service a year, saying previous village administrations had inquired in the past about going to CENCOM and the PSAP had found the village had inflated its calls, he said.

Simmons gave the example of a motor vehicle crash being one call, and the subsequent calls for ambulance and tow trucks would not count as additional calls. In total, that is one billable call, instead of it being three calls.

Ultimately, Swansea is paying at least $99,000 more by having Belleville answer its 911 calls.

“I look at it from the economical part of it. What should be best for the taxpayers?,” Simmons said. “If you could save money, I think that’s what we all should be trying to do. If they could afford to do it, then I’m happy for them.”

Simmons said statistically, call volume would stay about the same, and people need to be at the PSAPs answering phones. He added consolidation has lots of growing pains, but said he believes having Swansea as part of Belleville’s PSAP will help emergency responders be more efficient.

“What we’re doing now is we’re eliminating the longer response time. As far as Swansea using them as an example, where they had one telecommunicator on duty to answer the phone,” Simmons said. “If you have a 911 call coming in, lets say a burglary in progress, and then a fire call comes in, well, who’s handling that call? Who gets priority there? Now in Belleville, they have three or four telecommunicators on to handle the same amount of calls, it’s just they’re handling them more efficiently, and more timely.”

In a time when a telecommunicator was alone, and needed a break, there is a question of who would answer the 911 call, Simmons said.

“Most of the time, they were letting the phone ring, and it was rolling over to our backup centers to one of the other centers, which was already busy anyway,” Simmons said. “(Consolidation) is actually more efficient the way its being done.”

Simmons says the relationship between the ETSB and Swansea remains good.

“We completed our state plan ahead of schedule. We did it on the 21st of last month. That was a milestone of getting it done,” Simmons said. “It could have been done sooner, but I appreciate what Swansea did. They did what they thought they had to do. Do I agree with their decision? Personally I probably don’t, but it’s a decision they made. I supported it. It works as long as Belleville is happy with it. I just had to get those calls to a center, whether it would have been Belleville or whether it would have been CENCOM.”

Joseph Bustos: 618-239-2451, @JoeBReporter