Chittenden County officials working on a project to regionalize dispatching emergency services met with the news media this week to answer questions and get their message out to voters ahead of Town Meeting Day on Tuesday.
“Clearly, this is not something that’s been moved forward without some deep thought. We’ve really looked at this as the seven communities,” said South Burlington Police Chief Trevor Whipple. “We’ve traveled around to other communities who’ve regionalized dispatch. We’ve found out that it’s been effective, that it’s worked. We believe it’s feasible.”
The question of whether to participate in forming a new regional district to handle dispatching for emergency services is on the ballot in Shelburne as well as Burlington, Colchester, South Burlington, Winooski, Williston and Milton.
The Shelburne Selectboard voted 4-1 in January to put the question to voters on whether or not the town joins other municipalities in forming the Chittenden County Public Safety Authority.
If passed, the measure would not cost anything yet, nor would it mean an immediate change to the dispatching system already in place. It is only a vote to join the group that would form the new district.
As Town Manager Joe Colangelo explained in a column in the Shelburne News: “If voters authorize Shelburne’s participation in the CCPSA at Town Meeting, this only provides Shelburne membership on the governing body of this new entity. A subsequent vote by the Shelburne Selectboard will be required if Shelburne ultimately decides to pay for and receive services from the CCPSA.”
A decision to join the new organization by paying for and receiving its services is estimated to be between 12 and 24 months in the future, Colangelo explained.
Over the past several weeks, officials from the seven municipalities that will vote on the question have laid out why they believe a regional dispatching system would produce faster emergency response times, better career opportunities for dispatchers, and more.
According to the committee that has crafted the proposal so far, “a regional dispatch center/911 call center combined in one location can reduce response time by an average of 71 seconds per call by eliminating the call transfer required when 911 calls go first to the 911 Call Center, then relayed to a local dispatch. This means faster response by police, fire, and emergency medical staff to residents and businesses in need. Other benefits of a regional public safety dispatch service include improvement of mutual aid between towns, an increased number of dispatchers on duty, and dedicated oversight of services.”
Despite the groundwork so far on the effort, many details remain to be resolved. Selectboard member Josh Dein in Shelburne voted against putting this on the ballot before more specifics were known.
Shelburne, for example, has a more elaborate dispatch system in place than many other Chittenden County towns. Its dispatch operation contracts handle emergency calls for some 32 fire, rescue and police departments in nearby communities in Chittenden and Addison counties.
Some questions for Shelburne that remain include understanding how dispatchers’ jobs would be affected, how much Shelburne might need to pay in the future, and what happens to Shelburne’s existing contracts with agencies outside of Chittenden County.
“We still need to answer all the operational questions and then have a more precise answer regarding costs to Shelburne and impacts to our current level of service,” Colangelo wrote. “Shelburne has everything to gain and nothing to lose by claiming a seat at the table of the governing body during the CCPSA’s developmental phase.”
At Tuesday’s Selectboard meeting, Dein addressed that point by noting that the other communities at that table are larger than Shelburne, and decision-making as the project comes together would be by majority vote.
Not every municipality that looked at the proposal has decided to seek voter approval. Officials in Essex considered it but the Essex Selectboard voted against asking voters to approve getting involved at this point in the process.
Selectboard Chair Max Levy said the dispatch system Essex currently uses is state-of-the-art. That combined with a lack of detailed information about regional dispatching led his board to decide against a public vote on the matter now. Levy said Essex will wait and follow what happens with the project and consider its merits in the future.