Although seven Lincoln County emergency services agencies recently joined the Willamette Valley Communications Center, based in Salem, to provide 9-1-1 services, the city of Toledo still does not appear convinced that it should be the next to sign up. City Councilors Tuesday evening said they like the dispatch system they have, that it runs on up-to-date technology and that their dispatchers perform more jobs at the police station than simply running the police and fire radio.
Toledo Police Chief David Enyeart said WVCC is a proven professional operation, has effective and flexible staffing, guaranteed latest technology moving forward and that Toledo could save $53,000 a year if it dumped its dispatch center and went with WVCC. But Chief Enyeart also pointed out that scrapping Toledo’s dispatch center would mean losing four family wage jobs, would turn the town’s 9-1-1 services over to another government entity making Toledo a little fish in a big pond, that Toledo would lose a continuously staffed police building, would be less in control of its radio channels and that WVCC does not have a firm emergency back up plan if connections to the valley are broken due to mudslides, earthquakes or other calamity.
WVCC Director Mark Buchholz said while it is true that a large natural disaster could cause problems with landlines, WVCC is installing mountain-top microwave communication towers that could keep the coast connected to the valley, complete with back up generators to keep them going even if regular power service was interrupted. Buchholz also said that a new fiber-optic link between Newport and Lincoln City is being installed constituting a backup landline connection to the valley. Also another microwave tower system is in the planning stages for another back-up connection to the valley.
Then Buchholz added a new dimension to the conversation. He said that WVCC would be willing to maintain a satellite dispatch center somewhere on the coast if Toledo joined the team. And he added that Toledo could become that satellite dispatch center. He also said WVCC would be willing to hire all four of Toledo’s current 9-1-1 dispatchers, just like WVCC has offered jobs to all of the former Lincom 9-1-1 dispatchers in Newport.
Buchholz reminded the councilors that when major disasters strike, small dispatch centers like Lincom and Toledo quickly become overwhelmed by the sheer crush of events. He said WVCC can call in a number of extra dispatchers very quickly to handle the situation, something that small dispatch centers can’t do. He also raised the issue that the state is studying a massive consolidation of all Oregon dispatch centers from the current 49 down to 9. Two would be in the Portland area, the next would be based in either Salem or Eugene. The rest, he said, would be on the east side of the Cascades and along the south end of the state. Others have also mentioned one in Astoria that could serve areas south along the coast to Reedsport, or thereabouts. It’s all very conceptual at this point.
Buchholz also indicated that some of the funding that the state provides to local dispatch centers could be affected if any 9-1-1 center decided to not surrender it’s territory to the consolidated plan. That of course would force the city or county to make up the difference in revenue to keep their center going.
Buchholz re-iterated WVCC’s pledge to maintain state of the art technology and excellent service to their clients.
Still the council was skeptical. Objections included that Toledo would have only one vote on a very large advisory committee that oversees WVCC, which would, by then, serve 25 emergency services agencies all with one vote each. Buchholz said the committee has always helped to manage the system in an open and fair manner while upholding the broader good for all agencies.
Other members of the council were worried that WVCC dispatchers based in Salem would not know the lay of the land over here on the coast and therefore wouldn’t be as effective as those who live here. Buchholz didn’t respond to that point, but in the past emergency services experts have repeatedly stated that it’s law enforcement and fire fighters who are on the ground everyday who know exactly how to get to a crash or crime scene very quickly. And that GPS systems and computerized address directories appear on dispatchers screens along with detailed maps that clearly show where the reporting party is calling from and can relay any additional information to emergency responders in the field. They also point to the fact that Oregon State Police use just two dispatch centers to cover the whole state and that they do it very well.
Meanwhile, city councilor objections focused on the fact that while Lincom was using out of date equipment, forcing their members to face big dollar upgrades if they kept it going, Toledo already has state of the art equipment and so does not face that disadvantage. They also said that they like the fact that their police department building itself is staffed 24/7 to render assistance to anyone who runs up and bangs on their door. Of course, if Toledo became WVCC’s coast satellite dispatch center, that might preserve that arrangement.
Mayor Ralph Grutzmacher raised the issue that Salem, of which WVCC is a part, has a sizeable chunk of their retirement obligations unfunded but admitted that any exposure to the city of Toledo would likely be small.
In the end, the council thanked Buchholz and his assistant for coming over the hill to answer their questions and said that they remain interested in continuing the dialog. The council said they would be taking the matter up again in early August.
Chief Enyeart recommended that the council, over the next year, keep the status quo to see how well WVCC does at serving the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, Newport Police and the six fire agencies that signed up. Then they might have a clearer view of why they should or should not join the others.
Lincoln City was mentioned during the discussions. Lincoln City Mayor Dick Anderson attended the last series of meetings during which Lincom ultimately was disbanded and WVCC brought in. Lincoln City has expressed an interest in contracting with WVCC but only if their residents can access a backup pathway to the valley where all 9-1-1 calls are routed, then returned to the coast for dispatching. (It’s a phone company thing.) Lincoln City’s single access line to the valley was interrupted during a severe winter storm some years ago leaving the town without any communications to the outside world for over a week. And they’ve said repeatedly they don’t want that ever to happen again. With the construction of an additional fiber optic line between Newport and Lincoln City expected to be completed this summer, Lincoln City will finally have that back-up pathway to the valley, through Newport via Highway 20, and likewise, Newport to Lincoln City to the valley via Highway 18. It’s been estimated that Lincoln City could save several hundred thousand dollars a year in dispatch costs if it contracts with WVCC.
So, as you can see, it’s a complicated issue and we’ll see how it shakes out over the next year.