Kent Dispatch Authority mulling consolidation of operations

There is also an issue the legislature must deal with regarding 911 surcharges.

May 15, 2015
| By Pete Daly |
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(As seen on WZZM TV 13) The Kent County Board of Commissioners has received an update from the Kent County Dispatch Authority that included urging consideration of consolidating all emergency dispatch operations in Kent County under the Authority.

Authority Chair Curtis Holt, city manager of Wyoming, also noted the Authority would like the Legislature to address inconsistencies in the monthly amounts in 911 call surcharges it is receiving from the wireless phone companies.

Kent County established a surcharge on every call to 911 of 45 cents to help fund emergency dispatching because the technology costs are particularly high, due to constant improvements that make old technology obsolete. The state of Michigan also levies a surcharge of 19 cents on every 911 call, with those funds shared by dispatch centers around the state.

According to Holt, the surcharges are a decreasing source of funding and were down 9 percent last year. The Authority, he noted, has purchased “an enormous amount of technology.”

The KCDA was formed in 2007 by the major cities of Kent County in collaboration with Kent County government. Up to then there were nine separate call centers around the county, with a lower rate of efficiency. There were also problems in quickly transferring 911 calls to the right agency, and some departments had emergency radios that could not communicate with departments in other communities.

To some extent, there are some remaining problems with communication technologies between the various public safety departments, according to Holt.

Today, under the KCDA, there are two Primary Service Answering Points, or PSAPs, in Kent County: One handles calls to Grand Rapids and Wyoming first responders, and the Sheriff’s Department PSAP takes calls for the rest of the county.

In 2014, the Grand Rapids PSAP took 158,195 911 calls; the Sheriff’s PSAP took 109,433.

The KCDA annually distributes 911 surcharge funds to the two PSAPs totaling $2.5 million, used just for taking calls. Holt said the total annual budget for both PSAPs is about $10 million.

The amount of wireless calls is now more than double the amount of calls still coming in via landline, according to Holt.

Holt said enforcement of collection of the 911 call surcharge is “a constant problem for us” because the state law prevents the KCDA or any other dispatch organizations from auditing the phone companies, and there is no consistency in the monthly revenues. He said it stands to reason that emergency calls should be about the same volume every month.

Holt mentioned that accidents on an expressway could generate dozens of 911 calls “because everyone has a cell phone.”

One of the reasons given for declining surcharge revenues is that the number of landlines is decreasing, but to Commissioner Stan Stek that seems “counterintuitive” with all the cell phones carried by the public today.

“I agree. I’m perplexed, too,” responded Holt. He added it “doesn’t appear there is a lot of passion to deal with this issue in Lansing.”

The KCDA is governed by a board including representatives of the largest emergency services and members of the city and township local elected bodies. Now the KCDA has determined that governments throughout the county ought to weigh the merits of turning over all dispatch operations — not just the incoming 911 calls — to the KCDA. The KCDA “takes the politics out of” emergency dispatching, which naturally requires some degree of collaboration between adjoining municipalities.

“It is a change, but we think we have a lot of expertise on our board,” Holt told the Business Journal after the county meeting. He said there would also be an increased economy of scale, increasing efficiency while also increasing effectiveness of dispatching.

Commissioner Jim Saalfeld said he supports the idea of a single dispatching authority, noting dispatching has been “evolving toward a more collaborative model.”

Saalfeld also said he is “cautious” about consolidation of government services.

“You want to be careful with any collaboration — especially consolidation. But this is one example where taking these steps will be beneficial for residents of our county,” said Saalfeld.

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