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Another view on the Lincom 9-1-1 issue

Earlier this week Sheriff Dennis Dotson issued a news release to the public indicating that Lincom, Lincoln County’s current 9-1-1 system (except for Lincoln City and Toledo), is outmoded and unable to meet the challenges of being brought up to date technologically at a price its member agencies can afford. Sheriff Dotson said the only option that he and law enforcement and the local fire districts can support is to contract with Willamette Valley Communications (WVC) in Salem which already dispatches for a number of police, fire and ambulance services for several counties in the valley. WVC officials have met with the user agencies of Lincom and have indicated they can provide 24/7 9-1-1 service for less money than Lincom agencies are currently paying. That, coupled with not having to buy new equipment for Lincom, makes the option all the more attractive, according to Sheriff Dotson.

However, a Lincoln County attorney, who has spent a great deal of his career analyzing telecommunications issues maintains that a better option is one that keeps dispatching services local and likely to be far more effective during disasters that could see valley emergency communications swamping the system at the expense of sufficient attention paid to the coast.

Here’s Doug Holbrook’s take on the situation:

I have been following the issues concerning 9-1-1 agencies in Lincoln County for several years, having first become more highly aware during my tenure on the Lincoln City Council. Because the first principles of emergency management include redundancy and simple (more reliable) systems, I have read with some alarm that Lincoln County’s Lincom member agencies may be seriously considering contracting with a Salem firm to provide dispatching services for local law enforcement, fire and medical emergency calls. I understand government budget conditions may make a Salem-based contractor initially look like a good financial option. And while the choices discussed publically have been limited to a county-wide 9-1-1 district with central dispatch, or the valley-based contractor, there is a middle ground to explore, which could be less expensive overall than now, and would meet the emergency management principles of a redundant, simple system.

Local professional dispatchers not only provide local jobs, but provide essential local knowledge that is key to officer safety and effectiveness. In the event of a regional disaster, dispatchers operating from our coastal location will be the best chance for maintaining communications for the most police and medical responders. Why? Because the Salem-based contractor will be overwhelmed with the surge of emergency radio traffic in it’s locality and with all it’s other, much larger, clients in the valley. Keeping it local, without divided loyalties is a simpler system. Local dispatch is simpler too, because the distance between Salem and Newport itself creates a near certainty for the failure of the physical assortment of towers, power and phone lines necessary for such long-distances. Therefore, keeping the dispatch service in Lincoln County is demonstrably a “simpler” system, which therefore meets sound emergency management principles for a more reliable system the public expects.

The other hallmark of any effective and reliable emergency response system is redundancy. Any one of the existing separate agencies, Lincom, Lincoln City, or Toledo, can theoretically provide backup to one another now, and have done so. With these agencies currently in control of their engineering and radio systems, they can assure more of the necessary equipment will survive an earthquake and provide needed redundancy at least within their respective jurisdictions. What is needed, however, is that “bridge” between those locations for seamless transition between any of the three 9-1-1 centers. That “bridge” won’t exist in Salem in a disaster.

I favor a local, county-wide district with redundant centers, not a single center. The three 9-1-1 centers currently in the county would be operated under a district charter which would specify shifting dispatch responsibilities between them on a predetermined schedule. This could reduce overall staff time and expense for cost saving, and allow for surge capacity. Because all the radio infrastructure is in Lincoln County, it is a simpler system as well. Even if the overall cost is initially more, keeping a redundant and local (simple) system is just plain wiser and is what the public expects from their government. The multiplier effect of keeping local dispatcher salaries spending locally likely makes up for any initial cost difference anyway. For performance when the “Big One”strikes, my money is on the local district, not a far-away contractor with divided loyalties to serve the citizens of this county.

I urge the user’s group and our County Commissioners to reconsider before signing any long-term plan which ignores these basic emergency management principles, and will predictably provide a lower level of service when the citizens will really need it.

Douglas Holbrook
Lincoln City

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