NY city approves replacement of outdated dispatch system

The state of the city's dispatch system became a concern when Sheriff Jim Voutour warned that only one of the city's dispatch center phones was still working.


Tim Fenster
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal, N.Y.

LOCKPORT, N.Y. — Top municipal and law enforcement officials agree the Lock City should let the county take over police dispatching, but after two decades of fruitless negotiations over the issue, some doubt a deal can be reached.

The state of the city's dispatch system became a concern when Sheriff Jim Voutour, in a June 3 letter to Mayor Michelle Roman, warned that only one of the city's dispatch center phones was still working.

The council moved to replace the phone system, scheduling a June 19 vote to have Motorola Solutions, Inc. replace and upgrade the phone lines for $272,290. (Photo/ U.S. Marine Corps by Ashley Calingo)
The council moved to replace the phone system, scheduling a June 19 vote to have Motorola Solutions, Inc. replace and upgrade the phone lines for $272,290. (Photo/ U.S. Marine Corps by Ashley Calingo)

The council moved to replace the phone system, scheduling a June 19 vote to have Motorola Solutions, Inc. replace and upgrade the phone lines for $272,290.

Voutour previously said the proposed Motorola contract is like putting "a Band-Aid on a major hemorrhage."

In his letter, Voutour had warned that the computer-aided dispatch system the city utilizes is dated, and the company that manufactures it was sold a few years ago. "I'm told it is a system with many problems, few upgrades and it's certainly inferior," Voutour wrote.

The council ended up tabling the Motorola resolution because the purchase had to go out to bid.

Shortly after last week's council meeting, council members scheduled a Friday meeting with Voutour and interim Police Chief Steven Preisch to discuss the possibility of moving Lockport Police Department communication work to county central dispatch.

Voutour, Preisch, Roman and Republican mayoral candidate David Wohleben each left the meeting saying they supported moving police dispatch to the county, though several raised concerns about such a move.

"I’m not against centralized dispatching," Preisch said. "It has to be affordable for the city, and I’m not going to support any program that would cause any layoffs or further reduction of the Lockport Police Department."

“I also do not support layoffs or reduction of Lockport police officers," Voutour said. "I think one of the greatest benefits (of going) to centralized dispatch is they can put more officers on the street.”

Voutour also said the Niagara County Sheriff's Office dispatch system is one of only 14 accredited systems in the state.

“We have a superior 911 system — one of the best in the country," he said.

Wohleben, who currently serves as 4th Ward alderman, pointed out city residents are already paying the county taxes that fund the sheriff's dispatch center.

"They’re already paying for that service, and we’re not using it," Wohleben said.

Wohleben shared Voutour's concerns that dispatching has grown into a profession of its own. "A dispatcher is now a profession," Voutour wrote in his letter to Roman. "It is not the job of a police officer using 1980 technology."

City police also cannot provide over-the-phone medical assistance during emergencies such as a heart attack, Wohleben noted.

“They couldn’t stay on the line and say, ‘OK, I’m going to tell you how to give CPR,’" Wohleben said. "The sheriff dispatch center can do that."

Roman said she also supports the move, though she noted significant hurdles remain to be cleared. The city will have to negotiate any changes with the police officers' union, known as Hickory Club, as its current contract mandates that officers handle dispatching.

Council members will also have to negotiate any changes with the county legislature, because the changes could affect county spending.

“We have to consider the cost and the ability to do so. We have to get the county to move on it," Roman said.

"They've spent 20 years having the same conversation, though," she added.

Voutour laid out three options for LPD's transition. The city could go on the sheriff's office frequency and share it with other county law enforcement agencies, at an estimated $156,000 annually; LPD could retain its own frequency at an estimated price of $478,000; or the city could share a frequency with North Tonawanda at $184,427 for each city. Preisch said the last option doesn't appear feasible because North Tonawanda isn't interested.

In sharing the sheriff's office frequency, officers would likely experience longer wait-times to get through to dispatchers, Voutour said.

The sheriff's dispatch frequency is currently used about 12 percent of the time, while the city's is used about 4.4 percent of the time. Combined, Voutour said, the frequency would be busy about 15 percent of the time.

In other words, about one in every six or seven times an officer or deputy calls in to dispatch, the line would be busy.

“It’s like being in a room; you wait until the other guy’s done talking, then you talk," Voutour said, referring to calling the dispatch center when the line is busy.

But the delays would not imperil officers during emergencies, such as a fight or shoot-out in progress. In emergencies, Voutour said, the officer can still reach the line and speak to a dispatcher, despite the line being used by another person.

“The emergency will go through and (a dispatcher) will hear it. And then their protocol is to immediately clear the person talking and take that emergency call," Voutour said.

Before the city can centralize its dispatching with the county system, council members and legislators have to negotiate a deal.

In the meantime, Roman said, the council should still consider the Motorola upgrade, as it will "bring us to the 21st century" and improve the city's standing in negotiations with the legislature.

"It will allow us to negotiate it right, and get the full legislative body on board," Roman said.

Despite Voutour's warning, city officials are giving assurances that back-up measures are in place for 911 callers.

Should the city's last dispatch line fail completely, 911 calls would be sent to the county's dispatch center. The caller would likely experience a "slight delay" in reaching a dispatcher, however, said Wohleben.

“No one will ever call 911 and someone won’t answer," Preisch said.

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©2019 the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal (Lockport, N.Y.)

 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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