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November 29, 2011 > Emergency Dispatch Consolidation

Emergency Dispatch Consolidation

By Abraham Cruz

The 2010-2011 Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury report "'Can You Hear Me Now?' Emergency Dispatch in Santa Clara County" considers whether consolidation of independent call centers within each of the county's cities into one integrated, county-wide response center would improve emergency-response dispatch and, potentially, save municipalities the cost associated with maintaining their own centers.

Fifteen Santa Clara County city managers, fire chiefs, presidents of the Saratoga and Los Altos Hills Fire District Boards, and select police chiefs, who maintain local dispatch centers, were interviewed by the Grand Jury. Some city managers have cited economies of scale, cost-savings and greater efficiency as reasons to pursue consolidation. Additional information was considered, such as budget information for municipalities, dispatch and response time reports, and testimony from the Santa Clara County Communications Department regarding response protocols.

The Grand Jury concluded the elimination of local dispatch centers and jurisdictional lines would provide faster, more efficient and cost-effective emergency response and encourages all cities to work towards consolidation to achieve those goals. Furthermore, to successfully complete consolidation of emergency communication and dispatch, standardization of equipment and technology is also necessary.

Municipalities with local police departments receive 911 calls at their own dispatch centers; municipalities that utilize the County Sheriff have their 911 calls routed to the County Communications Department which dispatches county-contracted emergency medical services. Calls to local dispatch requesting law enforcement are answered immediately but it can take between 20 seconds and three minutes for calls for medical help to be transferred to the County Communications Department; this is of great concern. The County Communications Department is also responsible for a greater volume of fire dispatch than any other dispatch center and is responsible for the dispatch of all ambulances, leading the Grand Jury to question if maintaining local centers was feasible.

Fire dispatch already employs standard response protocols, making the consolidation process easier than that for police dispatch because of different local law enforcement policies. Los Gatos and Campbell have a joint Request for Proposal (RFP) to explore partial or complete consolidation of their dispatch centers; Los Altos, Palo Alto and Mountain View are pursuing "virtual consolidation" where dispatchers share information and which allows dispatching without constructing a new facility.

Regional and functional consolidation has been successfully implemented in San Mateo, which operates as a county-wide agency that dispatches the closest unit to respond to a given emergency, and elsewhere in the United States. Furthermore, many Santa Clara County fire and police officials, who have worked in other states, are experienced with successful multi-jurisdictional practices and can help in the conversion process.

Each city is required to respond to the Grand Jury's findings and recommendations with either agreement, partial or complete disagreement and to give their reasons for disagreement. The City of Milpitas partially agreed with Finding One, agreed entirely with Finding Two, and believes both recommendations require further analysis and study.

The city's response letter takes issue with the Grand Jury's first finding regarding the benefits of cost reduction and improved efficiency. Milpitas' Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system, installed in 2006, is "internationally recognized as state of the art." Response times are under three minutes (in 2010), compared with the County Communications Department's response times of four minutes or more. The letter also states that cost savings for the first year would be less than $500,000 and prohibitive start-up costs would be too high if consolidation services were deemed unsatisfactory by the city.

The city agrees with the Grand Jury's second finding regarding county-wide standardization of communication equipment. This is already being addressed by the Silicon Valley Regional Interoperability Authority (SVRIA) and an RFP is being prepared for release in late 2011. The project will receive priority funding from Homeland Security Grants until a project funding stream is identified.

For a copy of the Grand Jury report and the Mayor's response letter, visit

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