Community leaders in Chittenden County have been trying to regionalize emergency dispatch for 50 years, but for the most part 911 calls are still routed to a constellation of local centers.
Studies, reports and committees over time have brought hope for the effort but never fruit, to the point where many public safety officers on the ground have given it Circ Highway status, in reference to the state’s decades-long attempt to build a circumferential highway around the county. A four-mile remnant of the failed highway still stands in South Burlington.
Now, funding from various federal and state sources might just drag regionalization efforts across the finish line.
“Having kind of a front windshield view on the project, it looks like the capital is going to fall into place and there’ll be some investments made, and once that happens, I believe that the project will take off,” South Burlington police chief Shawn Burke said. “But I think if you were to poll a variety of public safety employees, they would kind of chuckle and say, ‘Yeah, they’re going to build a circumferential highway, as well.’”
Federal money in an omnibus appropriations bill, shepherded by Vermont’s congressional delegation, will provide $750,000 for regional dispatch, in addition to $252,744 in state homeland security grants. But the biggest source of potential funding could come in an $11 million bundle in a current state budget bill, H.740.
Rep. Maida Townsend of South Burlington, who sits on the House Committee on Appropriations, helped fight for the money, which is in conference as representatives and senators reconcile differences in spending.
While Townsend is optimistic the $11 million will remain intact, how that money is broken out between different regional centers throughout the state and when it will be available is still up for debate.
“I have great hopes, because both chambers address the issue,” Townsend said. “I can’t imagine either body wanting to just throw up their hands and put it in the trash.”
The gist of the bill is to create a task force to study long-term funding models for regional dispatch centers, timelines and transition funding needed to get centers up and running.
Both allot $11 million but they diverge from there. The Senate version allows $6.5 million of the total to be distributed to four dispatch facilities as grants before a task force delivers its report, but the House version keeps the total funding in reserve until the task force work is done.
Townsend said she realized, after working on this portion of the bill in committee, that people are “anxiety-ridden and angry” over this issue, so her goal became to do everything she could to finally move dispatch forward.
“People were slamming on tables and saying, ‘We’re not going to do that until we have X, Y and Z’,” she recalled. “I did not want the whole effort to go up in smoke. For me, my key piece is that the system is fragile right now. The existing dispatch system is fragile, and the human beings working in the system are very fragile. The working environment, doing this kind of work is really tough, so I felt a real compelling need to do what I could to see that we did not lose this opportunity for the $11 million investment, which was the first time ever we’ve had that kind of commitment.”
Whichever language wins out will determine the timeline for Chittenden County’s regional dispatch project, but either way, should the $11 million remain, it’s likely to pass muster.
South Burlington city manager Jessie Baker noted that this funding from the feds, state grants and the Legislature will cover the biggest cost in regionalizing dispatch: start-up and transition.
“That’s really the biggest cost because as you can imagine, dispatch isn’t a service we can turn on and off,” Baker said.
She also hopes that, in addition to easing the burden on emergency dispatchers, streamlining public safety efforts and shortening response times, this new model will help the city’s current staffing struggles.
South Burlington is not alone in this — staffing shortages have plagued job sectors across the country — but six vacancies in the city’s police department have spread the force thin. There are six dispatchers on staff with a seventh in training, but that’s nothing compared to the Burlington Police Department, whose staff is running at half a tank, Burke noted.
Through regionalization, Baker said dispatchers will have more opportunities for professional development and for promotion, while shouldering less of the stress that currently accompanies the job.
“If somebody’s considering becoming a dispatcher and is going to be the only dispatcher on duty for a whole municipality versus one of five dispatchers on a team dispatching for a number of municipalities, I think that is a competitive advantage,” Baker said.
Some dispatchers still feel anxiety over the idea that the way they’ve answered 911 calls their whole careers will be overhauled.
In an interview last year about the dispatch efforts, retired dispatcher Deb Kruger told The Other Paper that she fears “institutional knowledge” will be lost if the system is regionalized.
“We get to know our police, firefighters and EMS very well. Even from the intonation of a voice on a radio when they call in, we know if they’re under stress,” Kruger, who dispatched 911 calls in South Burlington for 40 years, said. “If you’re working with different officers all the time, you’ll lose that.”
Burke hopes that the professionalization of dispatch could do “a lot of good” in terms of recruiting and retainment of officers, not to mention what it would do to address the constantly rising demand on dispatchers in a system that hasn’t changed since the 1980s.
But he understands the anxiety, calling it “well earned.”
“I think some of the angst about going to a regional model has caused some of the churn in personnel,” Burke said. “It will take some time, but I think over that time, it will really professionalize the experience for the employees. They’re extremely competent and professional individuals now, but I think given their own structure and organization that they would really bring it to the next level,” Burke said.
As the most central location between municipalities involved in the Chittenden County regionalization plan, including South Burlington, Burlington, Colchester, Williston and Winooski, the South Burlington police station is tentatively set to house the new center.
According to the Chittenden County Public Safety Authority, the project is expected to cost around $3 million to start up.