Suburban Ohio City Considers 911 Dispatch Consolidation

Though the switch would be more costly than the status quo up front, officials say it would save the city money in the long term and improve the efficiency of its police, fire and emergency medical services.

by Kevin Stankiewicz, The Columbus Dispatch / April 15, 2019

(TNS) — Worthington, Ohio, is considering a proposal to outsource its 911 dispatching services, potentially becoming the most recent central Ohio suburb to consolidate.

The City Council introduced legislation related to the possible move Monday, one week after Worthington officials recommended the city join the Northwest Regional Emergency Communications Center.

Though the switch would be more costly upfront, officials say it would save the city money in the long term and improve the efficiency of its police, fire and emergency medical services. Worthington's police and fire chief both back the proposal.

Worthington estimates that it spent $1.3 million to operate its dispatching center in the 2018 fiscal year, up from about $1 million in 2015. That number is expected to increase to around $1.5 million in 2020, according to a city analysis.

The city estimates it would pay about $800,000 annually for dispatching services if it joined the Northwest center.

"I think it's a positive direction for the future," Police Chief Jerry Strait said.

Operated by the city of Dublin, the Northwest Regional Emergency Communications Center currently handles dispatching for Dublin, Hilliard and Upper Arlington, as well as Norwich and Washington township fire departments.

The national trend toward consolidation is driven, in large part, by technological advances and high staff turnover, which can be costly for smaller cities such as Worthington. City officials said partnerships like the Northwest center are beneficial because they spread out those costs among multiple governments.

Another factor driving consolidation is an increase in the number of 911 calls coming from cellphones, Strait said.

Those calls first go to primary dispatching centers such as Northwest, before being routed back to secondary centers such as Worthington. That process can add up to 45 seconds to a minute to response times, he said.

"It might not sound like a lot of time to the average listener, but I think anyone who is undergoing that heart attack or what have you would disagree," Strait said.

Worthington participated in a 2013 study that considered the possibility of creating a multi-city partnership in central Ohio.

Worthington decided not to join at the time, but Assistant City Manager Robyn Stewart said the city started to rethink its decision last fall when staffing dropped to its lowest levels in years.

There currently are six full-time and eight part-time dispatchers in Worthington, but its center is authorized for nine full-time employees, Strait said. He and other Worthington officials stressed that the desire to join the Northwest center isn't an indictment of its employees.

"We're pretty lucky to have great people," Strait said. "They do a great job every day."

The Northwest center would need to hire about eight more dispatchers if Worthington joined, said Jay Somerville, the center's director of technical services. Worthington's current dispatchers would go through an expedited hiring process if they applied to work at the Dublin center, he said.

"I'm hoping they'll apply here and we can integrate them," Somerville said.

Though outsourcing 911 dispatching services would save Worthington on personnel expenses, it would cost the city another $220,000 to pay for administrative positions within its police department. Those hires would assume the administrative duties that the dispatchers currently handle, such as recordkeeping for towed vehicles and mayor's court.

There would be other costs associated with the move, too, including $550,000 for building modifications and other changes such as adding a kiosk to collect mayor's court payments after hours.

The City Council also is considering a proposal to give full-time dispatchers a $250 retention bonus for every 36 hours they work leading up to the transition, which would likely take more than a year.

After the first-year transition, the city estimates it would spend about $1.2 million annually on its contract with the Northwest center and the replacement administration jobs at its police department.

"I think in the long run we'll have great return on that investment," City Councilwoman Beth Kowalczyk said. "The cost wasn't the primary consideration."

©2019 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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