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Involuntary 911 Center Consolidation Comes with Growing Pains

When Pennsylvania halted funding to two city 911 centers, those centers were consolidated with county centers, causing a domino effect of staffers leaving, new equipment being deployed and dispatch times lagging.

by Jim McKay / January 17, 2020

The consolidation of 911 call centers in Pennsylvania — the city of Allentown merged with Lehigh County and the city of Bethlehem merged with Northampton County — was a major undertaking and six months after implementation can be considered a work in progress.

Problems with staffing and equipment led to a “lag in dispatch times,” according to Jeremy Warmkessel, head of the Allentown firefighters union, although he told the Allentown Morning Call that he hadn’t crunched the numbers yet.

The consolidation started with a mandate from the state, which told the cities of Allentown and Bethlehem that they would no longer be receiving funding, “The kiss of death,” said Rick Molchany, director of general services for Lehigh County.

With the consolidation, the state reportedly sought to reduce costs and increase efficiency. But Molchany said that efficiency will take time as new staffers get up to speed, and new and previous staffers learn new technology.

A lot of time was put into developing the plans for consolidation between 2015, when the state’s decision to end funding was made, and 2019, when the money would stop coming in. Those making the plans looked into the future to arrive at decisions regarding consolidation. “Are we going to try to create regional PSAPs [public safety answering points] in the future?” was a question being discussed during planning stages, Molchany said. “If we are, let’s take a regional approach to our equipment here in Lehigh Valley.”

That meant converting to a computer aided dispatch (CAD) system being used in the northeastern counties, with which a regionalization would probably be taking place in the next 10 years. “So, consolidation quickly morphed into an equipment regionalization plan and created a schedule of equipment that makes a lot of sense to us,” Molchany said.

He said movement to the CAD system being used by the northeastern counties may not have been what they would have chosen first, but made sense in the long run when regionalization is considered.

In the meantime, staffers in the city centers that were consolidated with the county centers “freaked out,” and the ones with seniority took jobs elsewhere. “Involuntary consolidation was the biggest problem,” Molchany said. “Most consolidations are voluntary. People didn’t stay.”

The Allentown center had 28 operators, several supervisors and a director. The director retired during the first week of the consolidation, the two supervisors quit, as did 18 of the operators. Of the operators remaining, all were relatively new and had little experience. The senior members got jobs elsewhere.

“And then we’re battling our own equipment issues,” Molchany added. “We’ve changed every component of our equipment to regionalize with Northampton.”

He said things are improving. “We’ve noticed that we’re able to recruit more people and we’re stabilizing the comm center,” Molchany said.

There was also the issue of different protocols being used at Allentown, which has, perhaps, skewed the dispatch times. “The call measurement changes,” Molchany said. “The call might be 30 minutes because he might be doing different things before he gets there.” He said that in Allentown, the call to police may go into a queue, and the police may take the call 15 or 20 minutes later. “It’s never as easy as ‘the call comes in, you process it within seconds, and it’s dispatched.’”

He also said responders want more information and want to know “what they’re getting into.”

Eric Gratz, chief of operations for Allentown EMS, told The Morning Call that quick dispatch times are critical. He didn’t respond to Emergency Management’s efforts to contact him.  

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