Delaware County 911 system easily passes review

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County considering takeover of system that would increase Delaware’s budget by nearly $300,000

By Matthew J. Perry
Delaware County’s 911 and Public Safety Operations recently underwent a five-month review, and were judged to be unbroken and no threat to public safety.
But the system’s command structure and internal communications were declared problem areas in the same report. However, budgetary considerations will likely block a reform proposal that would move the Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) to the county seat in Delhi.
The Delaware County Board of Supervisors commissioned Tech Valley Securities, an Albany private consulting firm, in October 2007, to conduct the review and report their findings, which were presented to the supervisors at a regularly scheduled meeting on March 26.
According to Tech Valley’s 14-page report, Delaware is the only county in New York State without a PSAP within its borders. Lacking the resources to update an “inefficient and outdated” 911 system, in 1999 the county accepted assistance from New York State Police Troop C, headquartered just over the Delaware-Otsego county border in Sidney, and began to use police facilities to field 911 calls and dispatch needed personnel.
While the move was cost-effective, in recent years there has been a groundswell of support within the county to move the PSAP to Delhi. Late in 2007, internal dialogues suggested that public safety might be threatened under the existing structure of command. In response to this debate, the board of supervisors commissioned the report.
Central to the discussion are the oversight—or lack thereof—that Delhi-based 911 Coordinator Steven Finch can exercise with 911 dispatchers, who are employees of the state police and work on the northwestern edge of the county. While Tech Valley’s CEO, Bob Wolfgang, was effusive in his praise of Finch, the report stated that “his ability to actively supervise, train and discipline” dispatchers is compromised by the existing arrangement. In addition, the dispatchers’ knowledge of Delaware County is often spotty, since many of them do not live within its boundaries.

Few problems
Raw numbers of immediate interest to the public do not reflect these problems. The report found that the volume of 911 calls has been quite consistent in recent years, with an average of 50 calls a day. From 2004-2006, there were 53,000 911 calls. Only 50 documented complaints were logged in that time. “The system, as it is, ‘is not broken’,” stated the report.
But this reassurance came with several caveats. First, Wolfgang stated that many complaints are never documented, often due to time constraints or corner cutting, but also to a sense that “submitting complaints is futile.” Furthermore, the report noted a disparity between the pay for Delaware County communications specialists and those who work for the state police, which widens with tenure; as a result, the county loses many of its most experienced personnel to other agencies. This, coupled with the use of part-time and possibly under-trained employees, was cited as a potential source of liability litigation.
Tech Valley made a number of suggestions for improving the existing 911-response system. While noting that the home rule principle prevails in the county towns, it was suggested that “the responder community . . .unify and standardize protocols and procedures” among 911 stakeholders. Reporting that they found that “professional communicators were not communicating”, the team encouraged dispatchers and responders to visit facilities, schedule regular meetings and correspond regularly with state police, emergency services and the board of supervisors.
But the report also unequivocally stated, “a greater presence by the 911 Coordinator, at the 911 PSAP, is the single most important action to be taken, in addressing the complaints voiced by the public safety community.” This assessment dovetailed with a conclusion that clearly addressed the county’s original question: “The relocation of the Delaware County PSAP makes sense, and should be accomplished because it will satisfy the managerial principle of unity of command, and it would be a natural progression to ensure a single-focus mission.”
The report recommended hiring nine full-time dispatchers and three supervisors; the cost of training and hiring the dispatchers alone was estimated at $450,000.
Upon completing its presentation, which lasted nearly two hours, the team fielded questions from a budget-conscious board. Chairman Jim Eisel, noting the team’s rejection of part-time employment, asked if this was not a recipe for “a big increase in our budget.”
Wolfgang replied that it was. “When you want to do something right, you don’t cut corners,” he said. Nevertheless, he conceded that so long as the response system functioned along legal, prescribed guidelines, it could be declared functional.
“The safety of the people is not compromised,” Eisel concluded.
Other supervisors expressed outright skepticism for the team’s conclusion. Delhi Supervisor Peter Bracci indignantly described a proposal to fix an unbroken system as “totally out of line.”
Noting the time, Chairman Eisel pushed to address the board’s resolutions, and Tech Valley dismantled their equipment and quickly left the room.