Current system is 'broken at times': Calif. city seeks new 911 dispatch options

Modesto's Deputy City Manager Scotty Douglass said a new option could help shorten response times and support changing community needs


Lydia Gerike
The Modesto Bee

MODESTO, Calif. — Modesto will start looking into a new 911 dispatch setup for the city.

City Council members voted 6-1 to serve the Stanislaus Regional 911 center Joint Powers Authority "with a written notice of an intent to terminate" its relationship, effective Jan. 1, 2024, and explore alternative options for the city.

City Council members voted 6-1 to serve the Stanislaus Regional 911 center Joint Powers Authority 
City Council members voted 6-1 to serve the Stanislaus Regional 911 center Joint Powers Authority "with a written notice of an intent to terminate" its relationship, effective Jan. 1, 2024, and explore alternative options for the city. (Photo/Stanislaus Regional 911 center)

"The system we have right now is pretty broken at times," said Councilman Bill Zoslocki, who voted in favor of the motion.

Modesto and Stanislaus County have been operating joint dispatch responsibilities through the center since 1999. It serves the Modesto police, the Sheriff's Department, multiple fire departments and other agencies. However some jurisdictions that serve within the county are separate, such as the California Highway Patrol; Ceres, Oakdale and Newman police; and the Turlock police and fire departments.

The city pays $4.4 million into the dispatch center, just over half of the center's total budget.

During a presentation to the council, Deputy City Manager Scotty Douglass said a new option could help shorten response times and support changing community needs. He said there was no immediate cost associated with making the decision.

For example, Douglass said the current setup is not able to accommodate the growing demand for resources dedicated specifically to mental health crises. Congress passed a law last year to create a 988 mental health emergency line, but Stanislaus Regional is not equipped right now to handle that transition.

The Modesto Bee has previously reported on staffing complaints and other issues the regional dispatch center.

A 2014 consultant's study commissioned by Modesto's then Police Chief Galen Carroll concluded that Stanislaus Regional 911 had ineffective leadership, demoralized staff and uncontrolled employee costs. However, county leaders criticized the study as biased, inflammatory and inaccurate.

A consulting firm hired by the Stanislaus 911 commission found in a report released in 2015 that the agency's costs per dispatcher were $233,237, compared with $170,371 in Fresno, Monterey, Sacramento and San Joaquin counties.

A Bee review around the same time found the base salary range for Stanislaus Regional dispatchers was $47,320 to $57,533, but the employees averaged about $10,000 in overtime and $10,000 in incentive pay.

Last month, an AT&T outage disrupted 911 service through the system for about 12 hours. With a system switch, the city said it would work to prevent something similar from happening.

Having a two-year window to find, implement and test a new system would help make sure calls were handled without interruption during the switch, City Manager Joseph Lopez said.

"It would be our job to make sure that there is no breakdown in service whatsoever, and we would not go live until we were very confident that was occurring," he said.

Mike Eggner, a senior business representative for Operating Engineers Local 3, spoke out against changing the 911 system, citing unknown future costs and employee needs.

The city shouldn't rely on taking dispatch center employees from their current roles at the regional center, Eggner said. He also did not agree with the city asserting that this decision had no cost, because it would be taking over more responsibility, including benefit packages, retirement and training for all center employees.

"If you're really looking to leave, do your research, come back with some hard numbers, or some numbers at all," and report what the real cost will be to the community, Eggner said.

The Stanislaus Regional 911 center also will have to address problems such as implementing the 988 number whether Modesto is there or not, Eggner said.

Buck Condit, a Stanislaus County supervisor and vice chair of the seven-person commission that oversees Regional 911, said the joint system's largest city wanting to pull out is "unfortunate."

Modesto's decision to explore other options is still new, and Condit said he is not yet sure how it would impact the rest of the system, financially or otherwise.

The center already has a strong set of employees and is working to address issues brought up by the City Council, including preparing to implement 988 services, Condit said.

He said he believes the Regional 911 center is stronger than any individual options and thinks it is still possible Modesto could elect to stay.

"In the end, they might find out that what we have at Regional 911, the JPA, is a pretty good deal," Condit said.

Zoslocki reminded the council that this decision only began the process of investigating 911 improvements, but that doing so could lead to a better emergency response in the city.

The council voted in favor of the notice, with only District 2 Councilman Tony Madrigal against it.

After the formal notice is provided, the next step is to assess the best new option for the city, Douglass said.

Bee Staff Writer Ken Carlson contributed to this report.

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(c)2021 The Modesto Bee (Modesto, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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