Madison County has skirted the rules in its efforts to comply with a law mandating consolidation of its 911 call centers, according to a complaint filed by the St. Clair County Emergency Management Agency.
Madison County's plan keeps control of some dispatch services in the hands of some individual police departments — a violation of a rule in the state-mandated consolidation law, according to St. Clair County EMA Director Herb Simmons.
"Our main concern is we wanted to do a similar thing and we got rejected," Simmons said. "We had to conform to the law and we expect any other county in the state to follow the same rules."
Dana Burris, interim director of Madison County Emergency Telephone System, declined an interview for this story.
When the law first went into effect, police chiefs and 911 directors raised concerns about the cost of consolidation, possible layoffs and loss of control at the local level. Law enforcement leaders also argued local dispatchers are more familiar with their territory compared with a non-local telecommunicator.
While St. Clair County has already complied with the 2015 law requiring counties to reduce the number of call centers by half, Madison County has yet to have its plan approved by the state. The law was meant to save costs as the state moves toward Next Generation 911, the federal government's name for technology that allows call centers to receive information like text messages and caller location from smartphones.
Of the counties required to consolidate, 12 have already completed the process, including St. Clair County, according to Illinois State Police, and eight counties are still in the process, including Madison County.
Madison County's plan early on indicates seven of the county's 15 centers will close as required by law, but later indicates each center "listed as 'closing' will continue to function as a dispatch center for their respective jurisdictions."
Police departments for Bethalto, East Alton, Highland, Madison, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Troy and Venice would continue operating some dispatch services, according to the county's plan.
While all 911 equipment would be removed from the local dispatch centers on the closing list, they would continue to offer some dispatch services.
A telecommunicator who receives a call at one of the approved consolidated centers would notify a police officer to respond, but then the local dispatch center would take over all subsequent calls, radio traffic and incoming information, Simmons said, citing language in the plan.
This adds an additional step, wasting valuable time and creating a public safety hazard for the caller and possibly the first responder, Simmons said, because it's not clear how the telecommunicator will share information with the local dispatcher.
It's also a violation of the law, which says call centers may not be converted into dispatch centers "to avoid the requirements" of consolidation, Simmons added.
"The law is there and you have to follow it," he said.
But police departments don't want to give up control of their dispatching services, Robert Rizzi, chairman of the Madison County Emergency Telephone System Board, told the Belleville News-Democrat previously.
Rizzi did not reply to a request for an interview.
Additionally, dispatchers in the individual departments would handle walk-ins, non-911 calls, inmate monitoring activation of severe weather sirens and dispatching for other municipal departments.
"There are multiple layers of a service that don't need to exist in order to accomplish the same goal," said Bryan Whitaker, assistant director of St. Clair County EMA.
This format distracts from what should be a dedicated job — sitting at the ready to take an emergency 911 call, Simmons said.
"It delays public safety and possibly officer safety," Whitaker said.
St. Clair County struggled with the same issue when they first began consolidation. Their initial plans kept some control for police departments, but weren't approved. Later, the state added teeth to the rules about what agencies can handle dispatch services.
At that point, the county had no choice but to comply, Simmons said.
After consolidating, the county received $725,000 from the state to reimburse the cost of consolidation in O'Fallon, Fairview, Cahokia and St. Clair County, Simmons said. The county has since applied for more grant funding for Swansea's consolidation.
In addition to paying for their local dispatch services, taxpayers will also pay for the countywide 911 call centers and miss out on reduced network costs, Simmons said. The county saves between $6,000 to $7,000 monthly on network costs, Simmons said.
The city of Bethalto, for example, planned $218,000 into its 2017-18 budget for dispatcher salaries in addition to $50,000 for overtime and $1,600 for uniforms, according to the city's budget. In 2017, Madison County had a $829,590 budget for its emergency telephone system.
Madison County's plan is in the hands of the Statewide 911 Advisory Board, but needs to go before an administrative judge for consideration before it can be approved. That hearing is set for 11 a.m. May 25 in Springfield at the Illinois Commerce Commission building, according to Simmons.
Other objections from St. Clair County
- The plan lists police department numbers as a backup if the primary service, normally a radio communications, goes down. If the Glen Carbon call center system went down, for example, the plan says a telecommunicator should call the Maryville Police Department at its general number. This is also a violation of the consolidation rules, which prohibit call relays or transfers.
- The consolidation law requires counties to provide financial information for the plan or else it will be rejected, but Madison County did not provide that information. Their plan should be denied based on that alone, Simmons said.
- Counties are required to submit a map of how their 911 call center coverage would be laid out under the plan, but Madison County only submitted a map of the current configuration.