Changes loom for police dispatching as new fees likely
MIDDLEBURY — Local police, fire and rescue agencies that receive free emergency dispatching through the Vermont State Police might soon have to pony up some funds to continue receiving that service — an added expense that could strain some already tight budgets.
The Vermont Department of Public Safety has long provided free dispatching services to local emergency response agencies that don’t have their own dispatching or other alternatives. In all, the state police is fielding emergency calls for 105 local departments throughout Vermont — in some cases, around-the-clock dispatching. In other cases, such as for Middlebury police, it’s been just the nighttime shift of 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.
But faced with a growing number of calls amid tight resources, state police have been looking to shed — or at least get some revenue for — dispatching that it has been providing to the local agencies.
The Legislature last year formed a “911 Call Taking/Dispatch Service Working Group” to recommend the most efficient, reliable, and cost-effective means for providing statewide call-taking operations for Vermont’s 911 system. The group was also charged with studying how dispatch services are currently provided and funded, and whether there should be any changes to the structure.
The group is made up of nine members from the law enforcement, firefighter, and first responder communities, as well as a representative from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.
St. Albans Police Chief Gary Taylor chairs the working group. He said on Wednesday he could not share a draft of the panel’s final report until it is delivered to the Legislature later this month. He did say the report, among other things, will reflect a sense that state police are entitled to recover the costs of dispatching services, though there would not be a flat fee for all client agencies, according to Taylor.
“We think it’s unfair to ask some communities to shoulder the burden of additional costs and others not,” Taylor said of the current dispatch playing field.
Capt. Tom Hango is commander of VSP emergency communications and has been keeping a close eye on the working group’s efforts.
He noted recent changes in the VSP’s dispatch resources.
VSP closed its Derby and Rutland dispatch centers, consolidating those functions into the Williston and Westminster barracks. In the process, state police cut 14 dispatchers out of a total of 72. That means there are a total of 58 VSP dispatchers in two barracks fielding calls for state police and the 105 local agencies.
“It is taxing on our dispatchers,” Hango said. “There are times when they are dispatching three agencies to the same incident, so it can get quite hectic. It does bog us down a bit, but it is nothing we haven’t had in the past.”
So the VSP has been looking to get some relief.
“We are looking for ways to reduce the impacts on our two dispatching centers,” Hango said. “We’re doing the same work we were doing with fewer people, so it does make things more busy at times.”
The current system, Hango acknowledged, contributes to an inequitable situation whereby a local police/fire agency is receiving free dispatching through the VSP, while another agency in the next town over is paying for theirs through their municipal budget.
Hango said VSP would institute a fee structure to reduce state police costs, but not as a means of competing with other agencies or private companies that provide dispatching.
“They can’t compete with ‘free,’” Hango said.
“Even if we do establish a fee structure, we wouldn’t be looking to take on more business,” he added. “State police isn’t looking to compete and take business away from the other folks.”
Hango stressed those affected would not be saddled with a new expense — or no dispatch service — overnight. If the Legislature endorses a VSP dispatching fee structure, affected local departments will be given time to financially prepare for the new expense, according to Hango.
“Whatever avenue we take, we will take a slow approach and make sure people are taken care of,” Hango said. “Quite honestly, a lot of these studies have been done before. I tell people there are three things I see that could happen: Things stay the same; there could be a fee structure imposed; or VSP gets out of (local) dispatching with a plan and a date on the horizon that people could work with.”
Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley told town leaders of a potential surge in his dispatching costs during his proposed fiscal year 2018 budget presentation last month.
Middlebury has always handled its own dispatching during the day; at one time it was provided by the town clerk, followed by a local funeral home. During the 1970s, according to Hanley, VSP offered dispatching. At the time of that offer, state police were dispatching out of their Middlebury barracks.
“It was like having another local dispatcher,” Hanley said. “They said, ‘We’ll never charge, this will be a professional service the DPS will provide.”
With a growing number of calls for service, Middlebury PD increased its in-house dispatching to include Saturdays and the 3-11 p.m. shift, six days per week. The town switches dispatching over to state police from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., as well as all day on Sundays.
In 1998, VSP stopped dispatching out of Middlebury.
“We saw at that time a diminishment of service,” Hanley said, noting the now-regional state police dispatchers weren’t able to address most non-distress calls. For example, the regional dispatchers weren’t able to assist local people whose vehicles were towed during winter parking bans.
Hanley, who has served as Middlebury’s police chief since 1991, said the VSP has on a couple of occasions during the past 25 years explored the possibility of charging for its dispatch service. But the state has continued to maintain free dispatching to local agencies that asked for it.
But that could soon change with the 2016 study group’s recommendation that VSP get compensation. While the group’s specific proposals won’t be disclosed until Jan. 15, Hanley pointed to a previous fee structure devised by the state that would have resulted in Middlebury paying $15,000 to $20,000 annually to continue dispatching coverage for the graveyard shift. The Middlebury Fire Department would have been charged around $7,000, he said.
“My issue is if we’re going to pay for dispatch, then we need a performance contract and hold that service accountable,” Hanley said.
The free nature of the service right now doesn’t give VSP an incentive to bring more accountability to its dispatching for local agencies, according to Hanley.
“‘If you don’t like it, you need to explore your own options for dispatch,’ has pretty much been the response,” he said.
So Middlebury and other affected communities, Hanley said, will face either paying for the current level of VSP dispatching, or pay more for dispatching that is better tailored to their needs.
“For us to actually run 24-hour dispatch, it would be a pretty significant cost increase,” Hanley said. It would require the department to carry a minimum of five full-time dispatchers, up from the current two and some part-timers.
Middlebury and other Addison County police agencies have explored a county-wide dispatching service, but there are some concerns about how it could be subsidized.
“There is no funding mechanism for that,” Hanley said. “The Legislature in the last session gave the towns authority to assess for dispatching services, but towns can opt-out. They don’t have to pay.”
Middlebury is currently looking at some other options, including working with Middlebury Regional EMS to cross-train dispatchers to work for both organizations.
The problem is, law enforcement dispatching carries a laundry list of extra confidentiality/security protocols that don’t all come into play with ambulance services.
“Anybody who does computer work for us has to pass a training course on confidentiality and federal laws,” Hanley said.
A regional dispatching center or collaboration with Middlebury Regional EMS would also carry some substantial equipment costs, Hanley added.
“There’s going to be a cost no matter what we do,” Hanley said. “We’re either going to pay the state police, or someone else to do it. The days for a free ride on dispatch are coming to an end.”
Hanley does not believe that financial day of reckoning will necessarily come this year, but he wants his selectboard to know it’s just a matter of time.
“I want to let them know that there is this big expense looming on the horizon,” Hanley said.
Bristol Police Chief Kevin Gibbs was a participant in the VSP dispatch debate a few years ago. His department is heavily reliant on state police dispatching.
“My question to the VSP representatives was simple,” he recalled. “How do I explain this effort/idea to my board and taxpayers as anything less than cost shifting?”
Bristol taxpayers, of course, already pay for VSP dispatchers and troopers through state taxes, Gibbs noted. Bristol police officers help reduce demand for state troopers to handle calls within the town’s police district, and handle or assist with state police calls in neighboring jurisdictions.
“Yes, I know troopers come in and help us when we need it but I would submit not at the same level or frequency,” Gibbs said.
A new dispatching charge would substantially affect a Bristol police budget that has already taken some hits, he said.
“With a significant increase in insurance costs for my department, combined with a sudden termination of a security contract with Mount Abraham Union High School, we are already looking — even with significant trimming of our budget — at an uncomfortable increase in our budget for the coming fiscal year,” Gibbs said.
Bristol’s police chief sees some potential problems with the concept of a county dispatching center.
“First, as I understand it, the Department of Public Safety has had difficulties recruiting and retaining dispatchers,” he said. “Would a county dispatch not have the same problem? Second, with this compartmentalizing of dispatch, would a nearby trooper know a municipal officer is in trouble and visa-versa?
“Will a DPS effort to cost shift benefit emergency services in Addison County? I think not,” he concluded.
Hango noted a wild card in this latest effort to reduce the VSP’s dispatching burden. The working group’s report arrives during a change in governors. The Phil Scott administration might have different thoughts on dispatching than the departing Shumlin administration. Scott recently named Tom Anderson — formerly Vermont’s lead federal prosecutor — as the state’s new Public Safety commissioner.
“Things can change,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.