By Susan Redden
JOPLIN, Mo. —
The Jasper County Emergency Services Board has endorsed a consolidation proposal that could result in a single dispatching point for Jasper County’s two largest emergency dispatching services.
The proposal was outlined by Joplin police Chief Lane Roberts during a special meeting Wednesday of the county board.
While consolidation would result in significant savings for the two agencies, Roberts said the primary benefit would be better services for residents who need emergency services and the agencies that provide them.
The plan calls for the county board to contract with Joplin for dispatch services. The operation would be at the larger county emergency dispatch center. The two operating systems would be merged, and the Joplin center would be maintained “for true redundancy,” Roberts said.
County board members authorized representatives of the board to begin negotiations toward a consolidation proposal. Roberts said he will ask the Joplin City Council to grant city representatives the same authority.
The consolidation would address conflicts between Joplin and the county board that started soon after Jasper County voters in April 1994 approved a one-tenth-cent sales tax to fund a countywide 911 dispatching system. Those long-standing conflicts were cited by Roberts in outlining a proposed contractual structure between the two agencies “to ensure all the stakeholders have protection.”
“The idea would be to bring the two (dispatching) centers together and invite the other (cities and emergency service agencies) in,” the chief said.
Under the proposed partnership, the city would provide dispatch services and personnel. The county would provide 911 equipment and technology, addressing services for areas not in the city, and director’s services.
While Joplin and the county center both serve as primary 911 answering points, the county currently has six different dispatch centers handling calls for 12 police departments and 12 fire departments, plus emergency medical services, Roberts said. The agencies operate on five different computer-aided systems, and while the county and Joplin use the same operating software and back up each other’s operations, they maintain totally separate systems. Roberts said at least four different radio systems are used, so many field units cannot communicate without radio relay.
He said the cost of all that is more than $4.5 million per year, so taxpayers are footing the bill for systems that can slow response times and create potentially dangerous situations in which more than one agency is responding to the same call.
April Tarrant, executive director of the county center, said there frequently are instances when dispatchers are responding to the same emergency being reported to separate centers from separate cellphone calls, which now represent about 80 percent of the calls to the centers.
“If we consolidated, they would all be in the same room,” she said.
Despite the differing operations, Roberts said Joplin and the county managed to put together a workable system after the May 22, 2011, tornado, “but it took two days.”
He credited Tarrant and Sunny Goodwin, manager of the Joplin dispatch center, for those efforts and for working together on other cooperative projects.
“This is a huge step that wouldn’t have happened without them,” Roberts said. “They have worked together on a lot of issues. Both centers are pursuing law enforcement dispatch accreditation, so their policies mirror. We back each other up, but we’re not redundant. So if one goes down, there are still transfers and delays.”
Roberts said the merger would save money, provide better service, and respond to calls for consolidation from both the state and federal governments. The concept calls for the operations manager of the center and the approximately 40 employees of both agencies to become Joplin employees. The executive director would continue to be an employee of the county board, which would approve the budget.
Though they had questions, board members were supportive of the proposal.
“This needs to be done, and it’s great that Joplin wants to pursue it,” said Carl Francis, Webb City’s police chief and interim city administrator.
A PLANNING COMMITTEE that recommended a 911 sales tax in Jasper County also recommended a single emergency answering point in Joplin, with calls to be transferred to other agencies. After voters approved the tax, elected board members decided that the center should not be in any jurisdiction, and that it should provide dispatching for small police and fire departments that had call transfer and wanted central dispatching. Joplin was designated as the backup site.