When anyone picks up the phone and calls 9-1-1 in all most areas of Lincoln County, they are now talking to dispatchers not in downtown Newport, but to dispatchers in Salem – Willamette Valley Communications Center (WVCC) – a part of the City of Salem. The switch-over from Lincoln County Communications (Lincom) to WVCC was formally performed at 4am this morning, Tuesday.
The long planned switch went smoothly as could be expected, according WVCC Manager Mark Bucholz. He said there are little bugs here and there and some microphone levels to tweak, but everything is up and running very well from Salem and throughout Lincoln County.
The changeover was the result of a fork in the road for 911 communications in Lincoln County. Faced with aging communications gear and a very high price for replacing radios and transmitters, along with the need to keep up with rising technology costs, Lincom’s Board of Directors decided it was in the best interest of Lincoln County residents to switch 911 operations to WVCC in Salem. The board, made up of members of local emergency services and elected officials, very carefully studied their options and decided that the move made sense from a money standpoint, in view of rapidly evolving technology, and the high cost of replacing just about everything at Lincom. They decided to simply pay an annual operating fee to WVCC and have them provide the emergency dispatch services.
From the vantage point of someone who listens to police, fire and ambulance channels 18 hours a day, this reporter called WVCC’s Manager Mark Bucholz and asked if they had made the switch yet? Bucholz said “We made the switch at 4am this morning, Dave. How does it sound?” I told him it sounded just like normal. So, verifiably, it was a good job of coordinating radio transmitters, repeaters, receivers, mountain top microwave towers and piles of other technology that had to be linked together to give a seamless transition from downtown Newport to a building just north of downtown Salem.
Bucholz said WVCC will be making minor adjustments here and there, but for the most part it’s done. He said the former Lincom business line 541-265-4231 is still the business line. It hasn’t changed.
Bucholz and local law enforcement and other emergency services providers had quite a time convincing local residents that a 911 center two counties a way would be the smart choice for Lincoln County, financially and technologically. Many said that local dispatchers know the area than out-of-the area dispatchers. But as it was learned, it’s those in the police cars, fire trucks and ambulances who know the physical details of Lincoln County and can best navigate highways and back-roads based on computer-linked dispatches to their cars. They say it’s always been that those who drive the beat and respond to emergencies know their home turf better than anyone. Of course additional instructions that dispatchers get from those calling for help are always relayed to emergency responders in the field.
Today’s technology has advanced far beyond the capabilities of the old Lincom Center. That realization figured heavily into the decision to move operations to Salem. Lincom board members visiting WVCC watched the locations of police, fire and ambulance vehicle icons updated on computer screens moving to 911 calls, or just patrolling – the dispatcher knowing exactly where they are to more effectively manage and coordinate resources on the ground. In the case of a life-threatening medical call, WVCC dispatchers don’t have to ask where the ambulances are in the county, they can just look at their screen and send the closest one to the call. When it comes to saving a life, thirty to sixty seconds can be, and occasionally is, the difference between life and death.
Out of the 12 dispatchers that worked at Lincom, about half are currently working at WVCC – the rest deciding not to commute to Salem. That is an economic loss to Lincoln County but it’s viewed as the price to be paid for enhanced 911 service at substantially less cost, over time, to the taxpayers of Lincoln County.
As a footnote, Toledo and Lincoln City have not joined the move to WVCC. Toledo officials say they enjoy having a local 911 center inside their police department which is open 24/7 for anyone who might need help. In the case of Lincoln City, officials there say it would save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year by enlisting with WVCC but they’re taking a go-slow, wait and see approach to determine how well “distance” dispatching works on the coast. Lincoln City City Manager David Hawker has been a stickler for back-up communications in the event of severe storms or the dreaded Cascadia Earthquake. But others say, when severe storms or an earthquake strike, calls to 911 must still travel to the valley and back again in order to reach a coast 911 center. Others say even if a back-up system was kept in place, there is likely to be no power for the system to operate for very long, either in the cities or up on mountain tops where power will also be likely knocked out and emergency generator fuel supplies are limited. During disasters, regular emergency responders are likely to rely on satellite communications and what’s left of their regular communications network on the ground. For non-to-low emergency communications, it frequently comes down to local ham radio and CB operators who have lots of batteries stockpiled in their homes. They can provide contact within the community and to the outside world. It’s why hams hold an event every June called “Field Day” during which tens of thousands of them grab tents, their radios, battery supplies, generators and put up antennas in the wild to practice emergency communications with other hams around the world.