Residents will vote on Town Meeting Day whether Shelburne participates in the formation of a regional dispatch center for emergency first responders in Chittenden County.
If approved, Shelburne, along with other municipalities in Chittenden County, would begin forming a municipal union district in charge of handling dispatching for police, fire and rescue personnel. This vote is the first step in a lengthy process that will result in a new government agency created over an approximate one- to three-year period, project planners estimate.
The Shelburne selectboard voted 4-1 on Jan. 23 to put the dispatch question on the March 6 ballot after a detailed presentation earlier in January from project advocates.
Town Manager Joe Colangelo is a member of the Joint Survey Committee along with town officials from Burlington, Colchester, Essex, Milton, South Burlington, Williston and Winooski. The group was created to collect research creating a regional system for dispatching countywide.
The point is not that existing municipal systems are inadequate, but more so that a collaboration might be more efficient and ultimately faster at getting first responders on the scene of a call in an emergency.
“In the process of reviewing the data and drafting the agreement, the JSC determined that a regional dispatch center, especially when combined with a regional public safety answering point (911 call center), is worthwhile because it can reduce response time for many 911 calls by avoiding a transfer to local dispatch saving about 70 seconds per call,” a Joint Survey Committee report said.
A regional district to address dispatch would be comparable to other regional municipal districts organized around specific functions such as the Chittenden Solid Waste District, Champlain Water District or Green Mountain Transit.
Colangelo said the study group believes that a regional approach could cut response times because it would employ a coordinated system to eliminate transferring calls as done now by dispatchers from various communities to the correct agencies.
What’s in it for Shelburne?
Shelburne already has a relatively sophisticated system in place, so a new regional system would mainly benefit Shelburne residents when they spend time in other parts of Chittenden County, Colangelo said. Shelburne provides dispatching services for 32 municipalities in the region. Its 911-dispatch operation is designated as a Public Safety Answering Point fielding calls among many agencies.
Selectboard member Dr. Josh Dein is skeptical about the regional project, in particular about its claims for saving time. As a result, he urges Shelburne waits before participating. “I don’t see a downside to a wait-and-see approach. As a scientist you want to see the data; so far everything presented is hypothetical,” Dein said.
Dein urged caution before completely changing how the county runs its dispatch operations.
At the Jan. 23 meeting, Dein made a presentation outlining his reservations about having voters consider this now. He said Shelburne voters needed more information first. His argument lost with the other board members all voting to put the question on the March 6 ballot. Given that, Dein said he hopes people will try to learn more before the vote. “All sides of the story need to be told,” Dein said.
Colangelo expressed some frustration at the pushback from Dein. Having worked on the dispatch regionalization study effort for two years, he questioned why Dein had never asked him about details of the proposal or brought up his doubts. He said no selectboard member has ever visited his office discuss the project or attended public discussions about it.
“I have some of the same questions as Josh, but if we don’t get a seat at the table we won’t get the answers we need. We won’t be able to help create policy and make decisions,” Colangelo said.
Skepticism from dispatchers
Last week, Burlington dispatcher Emilie Thompson sent a lengthy letter to various news media organizations critical of the dispatch project. The Burlington City Council has put the dispatch question on the March 6 city election ballot.
“It should be noted the JSC is comprised of town managers, police and fire chiefs — but not those who actually do the job,” Thompson wrote. “Their communications have featured inaccurate data and statistics taken out of context to suit the City’s proposal. Privately, we have repeatedly pointed out this misinformation to city officials; and publically, we have been left out of the conversation.”
Thompson also criticized the lack of public information about operations, safety and personnel. Thompson said the growing disconnect between those creating the dispatch center and dispatchers themselves will cause serious risk.
For example, Thompson said an advantage to dispatchers working in the communities they serve is the knowledge they have that could be helpful in an emergency. “The loss of this knowledge will be detrimental to everyone’s safety,” she wrote.
Another skeptic informed on the issue is Irene Wrenner, a selectboard member in Essex who has created her own website about the issue after attending numerous meetings. She’s concluded that instead of creating an entirely new agency, towns might be better off focusing on updating technology, for example in order to locate cellphone callers more accurately.
Proponents say the regional approach would have benefits such as a combined staff for dispatch personnel, creating opportunities for promotions that don’t exist now in small local departments. The study committee says it could boost mutual aid among towns, provide more oversight to fire and EMS calls and increasing responder safety.
Wrenner said she doubts it’s important for Shelburne to be involved at this stage. Because Shelburne has a more elaborate 911 dispatch service than other Chittenden County communities, it likely would be welcome into a regional setup at any time.
Colangelo disagrees. If Shelburne is to take part, it should get in now to help shape how the system is created. “If we don’t join, we’ll be sitting on our hands…Our only way to answer the questions and concerns of residents is to have a seat at the table,” Colangelo said.
The Shelburne March vote does not carry with it any financial obligation to the dispatch project, nor would it affect duties of current Shelburne dispatchers. It mainly will decide whether Shelburne participates in the planning and set-up phases. Participation would require another vote by residents, possibly as soon as next year, Colangelo said.
The dispatch question is also on the ballot in Burlington, Colchester, Milton, South Burlington, Williston and Winooski. At least three municipalities must approve the measure for the district formation to go forward.