Police Chief: Edmonds would benefit from dispatch merger

By Brian Soergel | Sep 21, 2017

An ongoing plan to consolidate two Snohomish County emergency dispatch centers that may be approved as early as next month will mean improved service for Edmonds residents calling 911.

“We believe we can be more efficient coming together,” said Terry Peterson, the executive director of Southwest Snohomish County Communications Agency (SNOCOM).

The proposed merger would take place between SNOCOM, which Edmonds is a member of, and Snohomish County Police Staff and Auxiliary Services Center (SNOPAC). The discussions regarding consolidation have been ongoing for years, but the most recent round started last spring.

Edmonds is just one of several member cities served by SNOCOM, which formed in 1971 and serves about 70 percent of a slice of southwest Snohomish County. SNOPAC serves the rest of the county. Both entities provide dispatch services to member law enforcement and fire agencies, paid for through annual assessments.

Edmonds Police Chief Al Compaan said the consolidation, which the City Council unanimously approved with a resolution Aug. 15, will benefit the city.

“First and foremost, having one center will eliminate the many thousands of 911 call transfers,” he said. “And it will save our residents some money through efficiencies of a combined organization, instead of operating two separate centers.”

City Council President Tom Mesaros said the consolidation could save Edmonds $250,000 a year.

“But I want to be clear that saving money was not the main factor driving this discussion,” Compaan said. “The driving factor was how to provide the best 911 service to our residents.”

The merger enhances a 2015 records management service called New World, a countywide public safety dispatch and records management system that allows first responders to share information across Snohomish County jurisdictional boundaries and helped reduce the impact of call transfers.

The consolidation also will provide, in particular to those agencies served by SNOCOM, a greater capacity within the 911 center to deal with high volume of calls for unusual occurrences that generate 911 calls, Compaan said. Those could include a large fire, a major weather-related event, widespread power outages or even an active shooter at a school.

“That could overwhelm any 911 center,” he said. “A prime example was the school shooting in Mukilteo last year. That resulted in many calls to 911, leading to delays in those calls being answered. But with a combined agency, there will just be that many more 911 call-takers on duty at any one time.”

Problems arise because SNOCOM has fewer call-takers at any one time than SNOPAC does, Compaan said. SNOPAC serves 37 jurisdictions in Snohomish County and is about three times larger than SNOCOM.

Problems can arise because SNOPAC and SNOCOM both provide service to unincorporated areas in Snohomish County, in Esperance and other unincorporated areas with Edmonds mailing addresses.

Cellphone calls can bounce off cellphone towers and go to the wrong place. Compaan said that some calls from Edmonds even get routed to emergency-call centers in Kitsap County. The rise in the number of calls from cellphones means the problem has become worse in recent years. And when calls go to the wrong place, it creates delays due to transfers. Peterson said there are 45,000 transfers back and forth every year between the two agencies.

“On average – it can vary – but it takes about 21 seconds to complete the transfer,” he said.

One out of every five calls for service in the jointly served area ends up being transferred from SNOCOM to SNOPAC, while one in every 50 calls in that area to SNOPAC is transferred back to SNOCOM, Peterson said.

“That’s over 11 days of hold time that citizens are on hold when they’re trying to reach 911 services,” he said.

In the proposed consolidation, the two 11-member boards of directors would merge to form a 15-member board with directors representing member cities, including Edmonds. All operations would transition to SNOPAC’s Everett facility, while SNOCOM’s Mountlake Terrace facility would be held and maintained as a backup dispatch center.

As each dispatch center’s board considers a draft interlocal agreement for the consolidation, Peterson said Lynnwood, Mukilteo and Everett also have passed resolutions in support of the plan.

“If that happens, the new agency could be formed as early as January 2018,” Peterson said, noting that it would likely take a year to fully transition, meaning full consolidation would effectively occur in 2019.

The move could save $1 million per year as a result of labor reductions through attrition, SNOPAC Executive Director Kurt Mills said, but the transition could cost anywhere from $800,000 to $1.5 million.

Peterson said those one-time transition costs would be covered by reserve money that the dispatch centers already have, but he also acknowledged that some member cities could see increased rates in the first year.

“In the first full year of operation, which would be in 2019, some agencies would see an increase in fees, and some agencies would see a decrease,” Mills said. “In the first year, we want to smooth out some of those spikes and dips between agencies.”

Beginning in 2019, the newly consolidated dispatch center would assess member cities using a formula based on calls for service, population and assessed property value, Peterson said.

Besides eliminating the issue of delays due to call transfers, the consolidation also would save money, for several reasons.

One of which is the number of employees; SNOPAC and SNOCOM have a total of 159 positions between the two organizations.

“We believe we can do the same job with 144,” Peterson said. “If we do consolidate and downsize the number of positions, we’ll let it happen naturally through attrition.”

It was made clear by the boards of both organizations that people would not be laid off due to the merger. Peterson believes that it will only take a year or two to downsize.

The goal is that over the course of 2018, the two organizations will work toward a full consolidation. Having SNOPAC and SNOCOM in the same building also will help the dispatch system work more efficiently.

Reducing the number of jobs and working from one building would result in over $1 million in savings every year.

The boards for SNOPAC and SNOCOM are reviewing the documents for the consolidation agreements. Any changes they have will be presented at the next meeting on Sept. 21.

Then, hopefully on Oct. 12, the two boards will vote on the consolidation agreement. All cities being affected by the merger also will need to sign an interlocal agreement before the consolidation goes into effect.

If the effort is approved, the new name for the organization will be Snohomish County 911.

Mukilteo Beacon Editor Nicholas Johnson and Beacon reporter Marie Haaland contributed to this story.


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