October 15, 2014 - Newsmagazine Network By: Jim Erickson
ST. LOUIS COUNTY - Some Central County Emergency 911 owners may be ready to have their dispatching services provided by the new St. Louis County Emergency Operations Center; however, a core group of users isn't sure the county option is a good one.
At the same time, CCE's employees also don't support the idea and warn that concerns about losing their jobs already have led to resignations - whose collective impact could affect the quality of service the Ellisville-based dispatch center provides.
In a letter to the CCE Board of Directors, chiefs from six fire protection districts "formerly served by South County Fire Alarm" along with the chief from the Crestwood Fire Department asked the board to reconsider any potential sale or merger that would join CCE with the county operation.
During the meeting, Brian Hendricks, chief of the Mehlville Fire Protection District, said word about what he described as "the inevitable shutdown of CCE" is "quite disturbing."
Conceding that joining the two dispatch centers could make sense and be in the interest of taxpayers, Hendricks said the reality now is that he and others have "no idea what we're going to get" in terms of a cost structure, what computer-aided dispatch (CAD) software will be used and what response times will be for calls involving fires and emergency medical services.
The chiefs' letter noted that an analysis of fire and EMS calls handled by CCE, and police-related emergencies going through the St. Louis County dispatch center revealed a major difference in the time required to process the 911 calls and send first responders to the scene. While CCE handles calls in 34 seconds or less 80 percent of the time, the comparable time for the county operation is 137 seconds, the letter stated.
"The gap between these call processing times" one minute and 43 seconds - is very significant," resulting in increased fire losses, delays in emergency medical care and ratings that affect fire insurance costs for property owners, the chiefs said.
Capt. Steve Sack, who heads the county communications center, acknowledged that police dispatching differs from that involving fire and EMS calls. However, he said the county is willing to meet whatever standards apply to handling the latter.
Control over tax dollars that fire protection districts collect and forward to CCE to pay for dispatching operations is another concern.
"If other areas of the county government are in need of funding, we fear that a situation similar to the way the cities were forced to pool sales tax money could conceivably develop," the chiefs' letter stated.
Les Crews, chief of the St. Clair Fire Protection District, added that he is concerned where he will go for dispatch services if CCE and the county center combine. Now served by CCE, the St. Clair district is based in Franklin County.
Greg Brown, head of the Eureka Fire Protection District and a member of the St. Louis County Emergency Communications Commission (ECC), which has overseen construction of the new emergency operations center, was the only chief from the former South County group who did not sign the letter.
Subsequent discussion noted county personnel recently had met with a number of CCE chiefs to demonstrate the new center's dispatching capabilities. Crews noted the CAD software package the center is using is one CCE had tried in the past and discarded as inadequate.
Returning to the open meeting after a lengthy closed session, the CCE board heard the South County chiefs say they would be willing to pay a higher price for dispatching services if doing so would keep CCE open.
In a letter to the board also read during the reconvened open session, long-time CCE employee Sheryl Hauk reviewed the efforts she and her colleagues had made to expand the operation to handle the added work load first from South County and a few months later from the North Central County Fire Alarm center.
Both the South County and North County dispatch centers encountered financial problems and had to close their doors last year. With the county dispatch center not yet complete, agencies served by both centers opted to have CCE provide their dispatching services.
CCE invested heavily and took on debt to finance equipment, communication links and other steps needed to handle the increased emergency call volume from the other two centers, anticipating that a major portion of the costs would be reimbursed by the ECC. However, the commission has tabled CCE's reimbursement application, saying the request failed to meet requirements for the funding.
Hauk questioned why the CCE board approved the expense and effort for the expansion.
"Why didn't you just keep all three alarm centers open until (the new St. Louis County center) was ready? Was it to make Central County not financially stable as an organization so then you would have an excuse to sell us to (the county)?" she asked.
Hauk said six dispatchers have resigned from CCE in recent months due to uncertainties about the center's future and their jobs.
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