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The pros and cons of 9-1-1 dispatch consolidation: Experts weigh in

January 10, 2011 Article 6 min read

Some local communities have already consolidated, thereby saving money and increasing efficiencies. Other communities, however, remain unconvinced. How much savings does consolidation really provide? How long does it take? What other benefits or drawbacks should be considered?

Particularly over the last several months, you need only to glance at a newspaper to see that dispatch consolidation is a hot topic. In Michigan, communities both large and small have been mulling it over for months, and why not? Some local communities have already consolidated, thereby saving money and increasing efficiencies. Other communities, however, remain unconvinced. How much savings does consolidation really provide? How long does it take? What other benefits or drawbacks should be considered?

To answer these questions, we’ve called on the following four experts who have successfully implemented dispatch consolidation in their communities: Livingston County, Michigan 9-1-1 Central Dispatch Assistant Director Bruce Pollock and Operations Manager Donald Arbic; City of Flint, Michigan Administrator Stephen Todd; and retired Eaton County, Michigan Central Dispatch Operations Manager Paul Rogers. They offer the following advice for communities considering dispatch consolidation.

Police and Fire must be equal partners

“If you treat fire departments as a little brother and pat them on the head, it’s never going to work,” says Todd. “They must be full-stake partners in the process.”

This may seem obvious, but when it comes to consolidation, fire departments often feel like they get the short shrift, particularly when it comes to CAD (computer-aided dispatch) and RMS (records management system). Fire departments often find that the CAD/RMS systems are oriented towards police operations and don’t properly support their reporting needs and therefore fire department personnel can resent having these solutions thrust upon them. So can fire and police consolidate and maintain separate CAD/RMS systems?

“It’s possible, but it would be extremely inefficient and ineffective,” says Rogers. “Having two different CAD/RMS systems is like speaking two different languages. Even if dispatchers are trained in both systems, which would require a highly sophisticated skill set, it still takes valuable time to jump from one system to the next.”

The answer? Take the time to research various systems to arrive at the one that best fits your community’s needs. “Make a list of requirements, and then look at the top 10 CAD providers in the nation,” says Arbic. “If police can live with it, and fire can live with it—and it will seamlessly bring in RMS—you’ve got it.”

Departments can retain their identities amidst consolidation

“It’s important to develop standardized policies and appoint a committee to review them with an eye toward potential conflicts and approve,” says Arbic. “We have one manual and one training program. That said, I don’t want anyone to think that consolidating central dispatch forces individual departments to surrender their uniqueness; that’s not true at all. The goal is to use common radio language on a common radio frequency—those things must be standardized. But things like whether to send an officer anytime an ambulance is dispatched—determining what level of service a community provides its constituents—consolidation doesn’t affect that at all. Some departments go on dog bites; some don’t. Some dispatch four officers on domestic violence calls; some dispatch two. Some fire departments send out trucks to remove limbs from roads; others don’t. Departments can and do retain their individual identities.”

Consolidation doesn’t happen overnight

One of the main questions communities ask is, “How long does it take?” Our experts’ answers varied from 16 months to 2 ½ years. “How long it takes and how well it’s done depends on the quality of leadership,” says Pollack. “If the person in charge is bogged down with committees and red tape, it can take a while. But if the person in charge is sharp, knows what needs to be done, and has the authority to solve problems as they’re identified, it can be a very smooth process.” 

Consolidation does save money

Is consolidation truly a cost savings? Our experts say “yes.”

“The first year we consolidated, we demonstrated a net savings of $1 million by eliminating redundant staff and duplicated radio, phones, heat and utilities,” says Todd. “There’s almost always a net savings, even if it’s just in personnel.”

Arbic says, depending upon the investment, the savings may not be immediate, but once past initial costs efficiency savings can continue for years down the road. “There are a variety of hidden savings. Many of the agencies we serve have given up answering business lines after 5 p.m. and on weekends; we do that for them. In addition, we had a couple of longstanding civilian employees who came upon retirement, and those vacancies weren’t refilled—that was 10 years after the initial consolidation.” 

Potential pitfalls

Another question communities often have is, “What went wrong during the process?”

“Proper leadership is essential,” says Arbic. “Once you have the right guy, things improve quickly.”

“There were some early mistakes made at our dispatch center as well,” he continues. “We had a couple of instances where we dispatched the wrong fire department; it was close to the border, and the responding department replied they were on their way because they were mobilized but the address wasn’t in their jurisdiction. That doesn’t happen anymore.” By raising awareness through additional training and setting objectives with the supervisors and dispatchers, extra care is taken to ensure that borders and the agencies responsible for each geographic region are properly followed.

“In Eaton County, we consolidated 13 fire departments, nine police departments and seven animal services departments,” says Rogers. “There were people who were extremely positive about the initiative, those who were ambivalent, and those who were very negative. It was my goal from the outset to win the negative people’s support over time. The sheriff’s department became the central dispatch function; we replaced our sergeants with civilian supervisors—their supervisors were supposed to train our civilians to rise to the necessary level. The process didn’t go well. We had supervisors who didn’t want to be in dispatch to start with doing a lot of anti-9-1-1 consolidation things because they wanted it to fail. They didn’t want to give up the control they had. The civilians were frustrated; they didn’t want to make decisions because they didn’t want to irritate their friends. We ended up having to relocate the sheriff department staff and take on the responsibility with fewer people than we’d initially thought we’d need. It worked much better. It took us two years to implement 9-1-1 and central dispatch, and took about four to stabilize and for everyone to come to us for full dispatching services. My biggest detractors are now my biggest supporters—now that they’ve witnessed the benefits and efficiencies of dispatch consolidation.” 

Smaller communities should consider consolidation as well

It may make sense for larger communities to consolidate, but what about the smaller departments that may not be able to remove personnel because of duties that will still need performed by someone in the station? Why should they consider consolidation?

“There are a number of reasons,” says Arbic. “The main one is that the communications industry is changing more rapidly than we’d like. The single largest group of calls comes from pay-as-you-go wireless phones. As that complexity of trying to determine who’s calling and where they’re calling from increases, it’s important to set yourself up to have a greater chance to respond. Consolidation enables that.”

Pollock agrees. “Dispatch is becoming very high tech; you can’t just take the average cop or firefighter off the street and put them in that position. Moreover, the dispatch community has begun the process toward requiring certification for dispatchers. Failing to do this will bring about all kinds of liability issues.”

As more and more communities are beginning to evaluate dispatch consolidation, lessons learned by those that have successfully made the leap to consolidation can serve as examples to show that proper planning and execution can result in an efficient and cost-effective dispatch operation to properly serve their communities.

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