The current dispatch system is fragile, and the people working within the system are fragile. The system includes two state public safety answering points, which dispatch for all state-level entities as well as for over 80 non-state emergency responding agencies.
These two public safety points, located in Williston and Westminster, have the highest staff turnover rate within state government, with currently a 48 percent vacancy rate at the Westminster site. To a one, exit interviews indicate extraordinary stress. The complexity and the volume of the workload is just too high.
The 2022 Legislature acted before adjourning to address the situation. The fiscal year 2023 state budget contains a construct designed to support and stabilize a dispatch system on which Vermonters across the state can rely. The system is envisioned to include the two sites serving only state-level entities, plus at least four or five new regional dispatch centers serving non-state entities. There are already four regional dispatch centers, in St. Albans, Lamoille, Hartford and Shelburne.
The budget contains language necessary to effect this transformation. After several decades of study, for the first time, necessary funds have been included. There is $11 million dedicated to the early stages of implementation.
An initial portion, $6.5 million, is marked for release during the off session based on applications within the Department of Public Safety Regional Dispatch Facility Grant Plan, but only after approval by the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Committee. The remainder, $4.5 million, remains in reserve until approval by the Legislature in the 2023 session. This approval is linked to a Dec. 1 report by a work group defined in the budget.
The work group is tasked with identifying an estimated timeline, and the transition funding needed, as new regional dispatch centers come online, and local dispatch services are transitioned away from the two public safety answering points. Among other duties, the work group must also formulate a long-term funding model for regional dispatch, which fairly assesses costs statewide, does not unduly affect property taxes and clearly identifies the potential impact on property taxes.
This is where things stand now: As expected, the Department of Public Safety followed through and proposed a plan to the Joint Fiscal Committee to support creation of new regional emergency communication centers as well as to broaden the capacity of existing regional centers.
A work group was convened and met weekly beginning at the end of July 2022. At that same time, the homeland security unit of the Department of Public Safety created and distributed a request for proposal and application process for entities willing to become a regional dispatch center. Twelve applications were submitted, reviewed, evaluated and ranked by a scoring group.
Ultimately, the Department of Public Safety recommended an incremental approach, beginning with funding support for five of the applicant entities: Wilmington, Hartford, Chittenden County, Rutland County and Orange County. These represent a range of project sizes, with varying operational minimum and maximum time frames, in geographically dispersed areas.
The incremental approach beginning with these five, to be followed by other of the applicants, will allow for implementation of lessons learned throughout their respective evolutions.
The Department of Public Safety has also proposed two contracted positions: a project manager to monitor timelines, deliverables and expenses to ensure that requirements of the grant plan are met, and a technical consultant to provide engineering expertise relating to infrastructure, redundancy and such. Following hiring for these positions, the department anticipates proposing to the Joint Fiscal Committee next steps in the incremental transition to regional dispatch facilities.
The dollars attached to the initial plan proposal? The subtotal is $2,270,000, $2 million for the first five applicant projects plus $260,000 for the project management and technical expertise contracts. There was additionally a request to be able to expend up to another $230,000 in the event of needing to shift dollars among projects if delays or substitutions are needed. Justification would be presented in writing if such occurs.
The total then is proposed to be $2.5 million, with $8.5 million remaining of the $11 million earmarked in the budget. This $8,500,000 would be available for continuing the incremental transition when and if approved by the Joint Fiscal Committee during the off-session or by the Legislature once convened in 2023. On Wednesday, Nov. 9, after substantial discussion, the Joint Fiscal Committee approved the plan as proposed by the Department of Public Safety.
So, there we are. While there remains much anxiety, even skepticism, about the transition of non-state entities to regional dispatch centers, there also remains much hope. Bottom line? It needs to work, and work well.
Any questions or concerns? Please do not hesitate to reach out to me: firstname.lastname@example.org; 802-862-7404; 232 Patchen Road; or Duke’s on Saturday mornings from 9:30-10:30 a.m.