Metro-East News

Under state mandate, counties working to reduce 911 call centers

State requiring 50 percent reduction in 911 call centers

Herb Simmons, St. Clair County emergency telephone system board executive director, talks about the challenge of consolidating the eight call centers in St. Clair County into four.
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Herb Simmons, St. Clair County emergency telephone system board executive director, talks about the challenge of consolidating the eight call centers in St. Clair County into four.

On a Tuesday morning inside the St. Clair County 911 center, telecommunicator Sharon Davis takes a 911 call from a woman calling about a domestic attack in Washington Park.

While Davis takes down information about the incident, she also tells the woman that help is on the way. Davis dispatches medical personnel, while supervisor Tina Joaquin dispatches police to the scene.

Telecommunicators such as Davis and Joaquin who answer 911 calls are stationed in eight public safety answering points, or PSAPs, around St. Clair County, and 16 public safety answering points in Madison County. The PSAPs are located mostly at area police departments.

Under a new state mandate, counties with at least 250,000 residents need to reduce the number of PSAPs by half by July 1, 2017.

By July of this year, the counties’ 911 boards have to submit their plans for the reduction process to the state for review.

The law passed by a large majority in both chambers of the General Assembly during the summer, said Catherine Kelly, a spokeswoman for Gov. Bruce Rauner’s office.

She added the law created a uniform 911 fee in the state, and consolidation waivers can be requested.

As part of the consolidation legislation, the state is building 911 systems in roughly 10 counties without 911 systems.

“Consolidation makes government more efficient and better uses taxpayer dollars, and this bill accomplishes that while increasing public safety,” Kelly said.

However, the state push to consolidate 911 facilities has local emergency responders concerned.

“I’m not against consolidation, it makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons,” said Terence McFarland, director of Madison County 911. “I’m not happy with forced consolidation to tell communities you have no say, the state is going to decide for you what is best.”

McFarland said he would prefer if local 911 call centers were allowed to make the decision on their own.

But because of the state law, he and St. Clair County Emergency Telephone System Board Executive Director Herb Simmons are now working toward putting together their plans. How the centers will be combined and consolidated is yet to be determined.

Affected employees

In total, Madison County PSAPs employ about 225 people, while St. Clair County’s employ more than 100 people.

“My concern is there is going to be loss of jobs, and I don’t know if a lot people have looked at that in Springfield,” Simmons said.

How many people will be out of work will depend on how the PSAPs are consolidated, call volumes and the types of calls, such as fights, domestic incidents, serious-injury calls or traffic accidents or shoplifting incidents.

“There will be some reduction in staff,” McFarland said. “That’s one of the reasons some of the chiefs are being so reluctant, because they know if they go to a consolidated PSAP, one way or the other they will be laying people off, or trying to find some other position for them within the department. We can also at some of these places, probably absorb some of the staffing because the centers have to have staff, and you want to staff with good, professional telecommunicators.”

Consolidation makes government more efficient and better uses taxpayer dollars, and this bill accomplishes that while increasing public safety.

Catherine Kelly, spokeswoman for Governor Bruce Rauner

The state is pushing the consolidation as it takes over connectivity costs of 911 call centers, and works toward making sure the entire state has Next Generation 911 capabilities by 2020, Simmons said.

Next Generation 911 is an internet-based system that allows digital information such as voice, photos, videos and text messages to be sent to the 911 network and to emergency responders.

However, St. Clair County has already invested $2.4 million to implement Next Generation 911. Madison County has invested $7 million.

When St. Clair and Madison counties started their 911 boards, the counties instituted a monthly surcharge of 65 cents per phone line.

The new state law creates an 87-cent monthly surcharge per line on all purchases of wireline, wireless, interconnected VOIP, and cable-provided telecommunications services.

“We want to be good neighbors to the other counties and we sympathize with the other counties that don’t have 911, but I don’t feel the voters in our county should be penalized,” Simmons said. “If the 87 cents is going to be put into place across the board, give us our 87 cents now, and let us continue to be financially responsible, which we have been.”

Police chiefs’ views

In Collinsville, Police Chief Steve Evans said his communications center answers 911 calls and dispatches calls for the police and fire departments.

Evans said local telecommunicators are familiar with a community geographically, as well as any history with a particular address, such as history of domestic calls at a location.

He added that trying to ensure the Collinsville PSAP stays is not an issue about control, but is about ensuring public safety, which is done better locally than in a consolidated center.

“We know we can provide the public service through our community center,” Evans said.

I’m not against consolidation, it makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons. I’m not happy with forced consolidation to tell communities you have no say, the state is going to decide for you what is best.

Terence McFarland, director of Madison County 911

Cahokia Police Chief Lawrence Purcell said he would want to keep his PSAP, which also serves Dupo and Sauget.

If the consolidations go through, the surviving centers would have to add additional people to handle the increased call load, Purcell said.

“We’re concerned about serving the community we work for and keeping our people employed,” Purcell said.

Feasibility of consolidating

Fairview Heights and O’Fallon split the cost of a $24,000 study on the feasibility of consolidating the two cities’ PSAPs into the O’Fallon facility.

However, how much it would cost is still unknown, and would require more research, said Rob Sterner, vice president of Pennsylvania-based Mission Critical Partners, which conducted the study.

Sterner added there may be an increased workload for the telecommunicators, and the cities would need to establish connectivity between themselves, among other upgrades.

He did recommend in a consolidated facility, O’Fallon go from two telecommuicators to three telecommunicators per shift, and have a fourth person work during busy periods, on what is known as a power shift.

The two communities opted to begin looking into consolidating because of their proximity and similar call volumes. O’Fallon already dispatches for Shiloh.

My concern is there is going to be loss of jobs, and I don’t know if a lot people have looked at that in Springfield.

Herb Simmons, St. Clair County Emergency Telephone System Board executive director

Eric Van Hook, police chief in O’Fallon, said there is a level of control police chiefs would like to maintain that may not be there in a consolidated communications center.

“I have the ability to choose who I hire to do that job and ... (to) the community, the most important thing is the success of public safety,” Van Hook said. “By me having my own little kingdom it ensures I’m going to give them the people they need to handle those calls and dispatch them properly.”

Van Hook also said he wonders how the state came up with a 50 percent reduction.

“To me, that is a random and capricious number,” Van Hook said. “If someone could explain it to me, I might be more apt to get on board with it, but right now, my main concern is we don’t have any degradation of service to our community.”

Fairview Heights Police Chief Nick Gailius said each 911 center has its own computer system, video system, and alarm boards that are monitored, among other things. Each city may even dispatch for a fire department as well.

“All those things have to be taken into consideration,” Gailius said. “It will be pretty expensive (and) I don’t expect money to come from the state.”

“While consolidation is a noble effort, it needs to focus on where they have the biggest concerns,” Gailius added. “St. Clair and Madison County ought to be lowest on the totem pole.”

He also points out that two years ago, Fairview Heights invested $150,000 into a remodel of its PSAP and dispatch center. The city also needs to pay $200,000 for two new radio consoles from Motorola because the current ones are obsolete.

Sterner recommended the console replacement be delayed, as the possible consolidation process is ongoing.

While consolidation is a noble effort, it needs to focus on where they have the biggest concerns. St. Clair and Madison County ought to be lowest on the totem pole.

Nick Gailius, Fairview Heights Police chief

The Fairview Heights police chief also said local dispatchers and 911 call takers are more familiar with their own areas and can understand when people make references to local landmarks, such as a perpetrator running from one local business to another business.

Gailius recently sent a letter to local legislators, where he suggested St. Clair and Madison counties be exempted because of the counties’ size and because both have already worked toward implementing Next Generation 911.

He said the consolidation requirement will not save money in St. Clair and Madison counties.

“Any savings will be negligible, and the forced consolidation of our PSAPs will cost our local police and fire agencies hundreds of thousands of dollars to complete consolidation,” Gailius said. “While grant funds may be available, our analysis leads us to conclude that the state will not possess enough money to offer every emergency telephone system board a grant to complete PSAP consolidation by July 2017. This becomes a substantially unfunded mandate for our local communities.”

Joseph Bustos: 618-239-2451, @JoeBReporter

2014 call totals to 911

Madison County

  • Alton - 23,787
  • Bethalto - 3,688
  • Collinsville - 10,595
  • East Alton - 5,324
  • Edwardsville - 7,119
  • Glen Carbon - 7,088
  • Granite City - 18,948
  • Highland - 3,107
  • Madison - 5,997
  • Pontoon Beach - 4,300
  • Madison County Sheriff - 33,309
  • SIUE - 1,478
  • Troy - 3,454
  • Venice - 1,713
  • Wood River - 8,624
  • Madison County Training Facility - 276
  • Total - 138,807

St. Clair County

  • Belleville - 26,788
  • Cahokia - 16,655
  • St. Clair County CENCOM - 60,412
  • Centreville - 9,240
  • East St. Louis - 53,780
  • Fairview Heights - 11,206
  • O’Fallon - 13,871
  • Swansea - 7,281
  • Total - 189,365

Source: Madison County and St. Clair County Emergency System Telephone Boards

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