Marion, Iowa, Police Chief Pushing Plan to Consolidate Linn County 911 Operations

Police Chief Joseph McHale estimates that 70 percent of the time, his dispatchers are working solo.

by Lee Hermiston, The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa / August 16, 2017
Shutterstock/Chris D swabb

(TNS)— MARION — At any given time during her shift, Marion Police Department communications operator Ashley Hill is taking 911 calls, dispatching police officers and firefighters and overseeing the front desk at the station.

Oftentimes, Hill — one of six communication operators employed by the city; they're trying to hire two more — is going at it alone. Police Chief Joseph McHale estimates 70 percent of the time, his dispatchers are working solo.

"The ability to multitask is absolutely essential," said Hill.

That means when a fender bender happens during the evening rush, Hill might take 10 calls — all about the same incident. She has to treat each call like its own emergency until she can confirm the call is about the crash, all while dispatching first responders to the scene.

"The phone is ringing, people are reporting this big accident," McHale said. "You're trying to manage the scene and you're having other calls coming in. How does one person handle that?"

Added McHale, "The liability we have right now is huge. We can't continue the way we are right now."

McHale — who joined the department in December — said there are a couple of options to address the situation. He could hire about 15 more dispatchers, which he said would present a "huge sticker shock to a lot of folks."

Instead, McHale has bigger plans that would carry an even larger price tag, but would — he believes — improve 911 communications for all of Linn County.

McHale said he wants to see Marion, Cedar Rapids and Linn County consolidate their Public Safety Answering Points — or PSAPs. To that end, McHale has requested the county's 911 Board fund a feasibility study that will look at consolidation and whether it's a viable option for the county. The board approved the study last month and it's expected to be completed in October. The $38,000 study will be done by Federal Engineering Inc., of Fairfax, Va., and will be funded by the board.


While the board overwhelmingly supported the study by a vote of 7-1, not everyone is in agreement that consolidation is the way to go. The lone dissenting vote belongs to one of the men who oversees one of the three PSAPs in question: Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner.

"I do not believe this will be cost effective for Linn County nor do I believe this will be in the best interest for Linn County residents," he said.

Gardner said there have been two previous consolidation feasibility studies, the last one in 2008 when Don Zeller was sheriff. Neither one recommended consolidation, Gardner said.

Consolidation would require a new facility, Gardner said, which he has heard could cost upward of $13 million. A new dispatch center would still require Gardner to staff the sheriff's office after hours at an additional cost, he said.

Gardner also said each PSAP has its own way of dispatching calls. For instance, he said, Cedar Rapids doesn't dispatch "attempt to locate" calls over the air, instead sending them to in-car computers.

"If I'm driving a car, I shouldn't be driving and trying to read a computer screen," Gardner said.

If the centers consolidated, the new entity likely would be run by a committee and he could lose the ability to have county calls dispatched the way he prefers for his deputies.

Pointing to the 2008 flood as an example, Gardner said he also believes the three PSAPs provide a valuable resource: redundancy.

"You look back to '08 when we had massive flooding," he said. "Two of three communications centers went offline. Cedar Rapids was knocked offline. Had Marion not existed, we would have been in really dire straits."

Gardner said he empathizes for McHale's situation, however.

"I don't know that the answer necessarily includes us," he said.


Charlie McClintock, Cedar Rapids' 911 director, said consolidation is far from a new topic or a foreign concept to Iowa. Johnson, Black Hawk and Scott counties are among those that have consolidated PSAPs in recent years.

"The city has traditionally supported consolidation just because of the efficiency of receiving those 911 calls," he said. "We've always been kind of an advocate."

Currently, if someone in Linn County calls 911, that call could get transferred to another center if the closest one is busy, McClintock said. With a consolidated center, all calls would go to the same center and be dispatched more efficiently. Those seconds saved can be crucial for first responders, he said.

"The No. 1 factor is safety," McClintock said. "It's absolutely safer for the public, safer for public safety responders."

McClintock also pointed out that Cedar Rapids is the only center with dispatchers trained in emergency medical dispatching. When calls go to that center, dispatchers can give instructions on emergencies such as choking or if a woman is going into labor.

"You're going to start getting emergency instructions when those other emergency responders are on their way," he said. "The other centers don't do that. We do emergency medical, emergency fire and emergency police dispatch. Those protocols make a difference."


The state of Iowa also is pushing consolidation, McClintock said. In December 2016, L.R. Kimball — which is now a part of Federal Engineering Inc. — released a study for the state on consolidation. McClintock said the state wants PSAPs across the state —there are currently 112 in 99 counties — to standardize their equipment and move toward consolidation in order to further streamline dispatching statewide.

"When I busy out, it rolls over to another center," McClintock said. "If I fail down, they have to say where that's going to switch to. It's important the state maintains this infrastructure and knows the equipment you're using and how things go."

In order to incentivize consolidation, the state this year approved new funding that will provide each individual PSAP with $200,000 to put toward consolidation. If Linn County, Cedar Rapids and Marion started on that process, they'd receive $600,000 from the state.

McClintock agrees that there will be an upfront cost to consolidation, but believes that with reducing three centers — and all of their associated equipment and costs down to one — money will be saved in the long run. Plus, with the state continuing to push consolidation, one day, local PSAPs may no longer have a choice in the matter, he said.

"Sooner or later, I think you're going to see it mandated by the state," he said. "If we don't do it voluntarily, it's coming."

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