Talks between Lincoln County law enforcement, fire districts and others continued this week down a painfully frustrating road spanning the last two to three years as they’ve tried to figure out what to do about Lincom 9-1-1. Unhappy member agencies have pondered either upgrading Lincom to state-of-the-art technology or contracting with Willamette Valley Communications (WVC) based in Salem which already has it in place.
This week Lincom member law enforcement, fire department and ambulance services tried again to get some forward movement on a solution. Law enforcement and the fire districts continue to strongly favor replacing Lincoln County’s “Lincom” service by contracting with the Salem Police Department’s Willamette Valley Communications (WVC) which has been dispatching for 17 police, fire and medical agencies in Marion and Polk counties for the past 20 years.
WVC supporters say that 9-1-1 dispatching services have grown more detailed, technically complicated and more reliable since Lincom first hit the airwaves many years ago and that the costs of bringing Lincom up to date for such a small population would be far too costly for Lincoln County’s cash-strapped cities and agencies. What’s worse, Lincom only dispatches for Newport Police, the county Sheriff’s Office, an ambulance company and the U.S. Forest Service. Both Toledo and Lincoln City have their own 9-1-1 dispatch centers and they have expressed outright opposition to merging with Lincom even if it saved everybody money. Both Toledo and Lincoln City use computer aided dispatch and records management services provided by, none other than, WVC. Both cities have held onto the dispatchers themselves who are electronically tied to WVC.
Our sympathy to our readers whose eyes may be fogging over at this point. Many people say “who cares who dispatches a cop or fire truck? I just want to know that they’re on their way and my taxes won’t go up to keep’em coming.”
That’s exactly the issue. Taxes. Some have suggested that only a brand new county-wide 9-1-1 taxing district could fund the considerable expense of bringing Lincom (and the other two 9-1-1 centers) up to date and continue to pay the dispatchers a family wage. And that means higher taxes for all property owners in the county. Those opposed to going with WVC, which have been largely the dispatchers themselves and those who don’t want outsiders from a distant county being in charge of responding to local cries for help, contend that the “prospective savings” by contracting with WVC are not as big as WVC supporters claim they are.
WVC supporters point to a “conceptual offer” from WVC that would suggest that the cost for 9-1-1 dispatching for Lincom agencies could be cut over time by 30 to 40%. However, even WVC supporters are demanding that such a statement be backed up with specific details and guarantees that the savings are real. This past week Lincom member agencies told WVC to provide the numbers on paper that could be expected to appear on a contract for services.
It’s been reported that the state is exploring and holding discussions about a new state-wide dispatching system that eliminates the costly duplication of 9-1-1 services, especially in the rural areas like Lincoln County. A recently produced comprehensive study of Oregon’s 9-1-1 needs indicates there could be 9 regional dispatch centers around the state, with Lincoln County being assigned to a regional 9-1-1 center based in Astoria. No final decisions have been made on any of this; state officials are simply going over the study and thinking out loud. No time lines have been set on any of it according to state officials. However they say the report will be given to the state legislature to begin reviewing it during the current short session. At the moment there is no state law that mandates or even provides for consolidation of 9-1-1 services around the state although many have done so, the most recent occurring in the Medford area.
So, the discussion in Lincoln County could be described as exploring options in “in-between times.” One option offered by County Commissioner Don Lindly would be to tie Lincom agencies into their fellow agencies that are dispatched by Toledo and Lincoln City but only at the level of the Records Management and their Computer Aided Dispatch screens in their emergency vehicles. WVC provides those services already to Toledo and Lincoln City. That way every police and sheriffs car could communicate with every other police car in the county. Same for fire rescue and ambulance. But how much money would that save on equipment or other labor driven tasks? Lindly said he doesn’t know but it could buy the county enough time to see whether the state’s long range plans are on the near horizon or are farther out.
Another option is to explore creating that county-wide 9-1-1 taxing district, mentioned above, which would support 9-1-1 services from a county-wide revenue base. But of course that would mean going to the voters asking for a substantial tax increase which just about everyone admits would get a brutal thumping at the polls.
Other options include limping along with what Newport, the county and most fire districts now have and hopefully buy a little time to try to sell the idea of a consolidation among the three 9-1-1 systems using the revenues at hand. Toledo thus far has been “very” uninterested in the idea saying they’re fine just the way they are. Lincoln City officials have been luke warm interested but have made it clear that their interest would not be with Lincom as it is, especially technologically. Lincoln City officials are still smarting from the fact that Lincoln City was completely cut off from the outside world after a huge Pacific wind storm knocked out the town’s power and telephone service which isolated the community for a number of days. However, with phone company CenturyLink now installing fiber optic cable between Newport and Lincoln City, as back a up link for 9-1-1 and other vital data services, it might motivate Lincoln City to come to the table. A group of Lincoln City citizens have argued for a long time that Lincoln City taxpayers are needlessly funding their own 9-1-1 center at a cost of $750,000 a year, when a big portion of that fund could be used for other pressing city needs.
Another element in the debate is that WVC dispatchers live in the valley and know very little about the coastal environment and where things are. However, those favoring contracting with WVC point out that “on the ground” knowledge is in the heads of patrolling officers and responding fire/rescuers. They know the lay of the land and usually only need an address or name of a building and they can get there straight-away. They also say that some dispatchers know more about the community than other dispatchers and so you get the luck of the draw depending on which dispatcher is on duty when there is a tricky location to find. And lastly they point out that incoming calls have GPS and address numbers flashed on the dispatchers’ screen so it takes a lot of guess work out of where to send first responders. There are also varieties of community mapping that are available to dispatchers so they are able to see close-up satellite pictures of where the caller is calling from, orientation and configuration of buildings, natural obstacles, etc.
At any rate, back to what’s in front of us right now. The Lincom member agencies asked Lincoln County County Counsel Wayne Belmont to report back to Lincom members with a firm understanding of the true costs involved if Lincom was to be disbanded and its member agencies contract with Willamette Valley Communications. They’re supposed to go over those figures at their next meeting February 15th.