There has been a long running debate among top Lincoln County officials over where the county should base it’s 9-1-1 emergency dispatch services. Up ’til now it’s been split between three locations; Lincoln City, Toledo and Newport. Lincoln City handles Lincoln City fire and police, Toledo handles Toledo fire and police and Newport handles Lincoln County Sheriff, Newport Police and most of the county fire districts.
But with any expensive service, the more it’s split up between entities that have their own people, equipment and law enforcement record keeping, the more costly each facility is to staff and run. The Sheriff/Newport PD system, called Lincom, is in need of a lot of expensive equipment upgrades including some brand new equipment, the costs of which have choked-up Newport, the county and the fire district’s on the hook for the bill. Thus emerged discussions among Lincom users to consolidate with the other two Lincoln County 9-1-1 centers or contract with the Willamette Valley Communications Center (WVCC), based at Salem Police, to provide dispatch services.
The Lincoln County Commission is slated to hold a public hearing on all this Wednesday morning, 10am, at the courthouse in Newport.
To be sure, the issue is highly technical. It’s an issue that doesn’t lend itself to the average citizen’s ability to understand how it works. But here it is, in a nutshell. Somebody in Lincoln City, Newport or Toledo picks up the phone and calls 9-1-1. That call leaves the county, heads east and pulls a U-turn in Eugene and heads back to an answering 9-1-1 dispatch center in Newport, Toledo or Lincoln City where the call for help originated. The Eugene turn-around is how it’s always worked and will continue to work based on current technology. So, anyone’s contention that the main issue is to keep dispatch services “local” doesn’t realize that all 9-1-1 calls make a 225 mile round trip before anybody picks up their call at Lincoln City Police, Toledo Police or at Lincom in Newport.
Secondly WVCC has been dispatching services to 17 police and fire departments in the Salem area for twenty years. In fact WVCC already runs police car computers for both Lincoln City and Toledo Police. County Commissioner Don Lindly, who sits on the Lincom Board, points out that if all three dispatch centers went to WVCC, it would be a lot easier than starting from scratch. Yet Lindly also says he supports Lincoln County residents having more of a say about the issue.
But Lindly adds that Lincom is running out of money and that it may well cost taxpayers a lot less to let WVCC dispatchers take on the job. According to Newport Police Chief Mark Miranda, Lincom is often swamped with calls for service so they can’t respond over the radio to officers in the field as fast as they’d like. Miranda says going with WVCC, with their flexible and variable staffing system, such problems should seldom, if ever, arise.
Another factor is technology. With three separate dispatch centers in Lincoln County, available funds for the latest, state-of-the-art technology is split three ways. The argument has been made that Lincoln County taxpayers deserve to get the highest technology 9-1-1 system that their tax dollars can buy. But they can’t if funds are split up. They say WVCC already has state of the art equipment and software – and will always have the money to keep it up to date and ahead of the technology curve because it draws its funds from a very wide revenue base among its 17 and now possibly 18 entities if Lincoln County were to join up. Lincoln City City Manager David Hawker has indicated repeatedly that if Lincoln City could be assured that there would be more than one telephone line to the valley (for that Salem/Eugene U-turn) Lincoln City would look more favorably with partnering with the effort. Hawker says they favor having a back-up dispatch center in Lincoln City in the event that connections to the valley are somehow cut off due to an earthquake or major storm. That back-up option is closer to reality in that Century Link is expected to complete a fiber optic cable between Newport and Lincoln City by the end of the summer. That would tie together Newport, with it’s line to the valley through Corvallis, with Lincoln City, which has a line to the valley through Sheridan up the Highway 18 corridor.
Toledo, however, has been staunchly opposed to consolidating with anyone. City Manager Michelle Amberg consistently maintains that Toledo is quite satisfied with its own 9-1-1 dispatch center just the way it is since it makes it possible for anyone in Toledo, who is having a problem, to run downtown and bang on the police department door and have somebody be there.
However, there is something circling over Lincoln County that is also circling over the entire state. It’s the state legislature. It’s been looking at the state’s 49 dispatch centers which, in this age of high tech everything, they claim is probably way too many. State emergency services officials point to the recent consolidation of 9-1-1 services in the Medford area as symptomatic of a trend toward more efficient and less costly emergency dispatching.
But back to the legislature. The legislature controls an important funding stream for all three Lincoln County dispatch centers as it does for the other 46 statewide. A newly completed study of the state’s “dispatch web” points out that those funds could be more efficiently put to work if the state’s 49 centers are reduced to 9 with Lincoln County being dispatched out of a regional center in Astoria, according to state emergency services officials.
As for criticism that out-of-town dispatchers don’t know Lincoln County from Key West, Florida, supporters say that’s going to be true for only a short time. Supporters say officers and firefighters on the ground know the lay of the land very well and once dispatched can get to where the problems are very quickly. They say that the technology that allows Oregon State Police to dispatch the whole state from just TWO dispatch centers is proof that detailed data, stored on system computers, can give “hometown” dispatchers a run for their money. Sheriff Dennis Dotson and other supporters of the WVCC option have said repeatedly that it’s not about the dispatchers as such, but rather the data/information stored on the dispatch system. Sheriff Dotson is joined by all other Lincom member agencies (police and fire) in supporting a move to WVCC in Salem.
Lincoln County Counsel Wayne Belmont will attend the county commissioners meeting and will have the latest estimates on the cost for transferring Lincom 9-1-1 operations to WVCC.
Another point of view acknowledges Lincoln County Law Enforcement’s “work flow.” In a higher tech dispatch and work flow system, by the time an officer is finished filling out a ticket, that information could be wirelessly transmitted back to the district attorney, courts,parole and probation and jail officials. Today, with our current system, deputy district attorneys and clerks have to transcribe original charging documents into the county’s data base which takes lots of extra time and money. Other workers at the courthouse have to do similar “grunt” work that could more easily and cheaply handled by computers. So labor savings is definitely a talking point in relocating Lincom functions to the valley.
Other options include continuing to use Lincom and to keep our fingers crossed that a major equipment break-down doesn’t erupt or, secondly, to form a special county-wide taxing district. But that means, of course, higher taxes and begs the question of what would happen if state revenue support is diverted to those nine regional dispatch centers.
Whatever your views are on this topic, the next county commissioner meeting will try to get to all of them, starting at around 10am on Wednesday at the courthouse in Newport.