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After years of frustration with the management and operations of Lewis County’s 911 Communications Center, four Twin Cities police and fire chiefs plan to ask their respective governing boards to approve a feasibility study for a new Twin Cities-based dispatch center.
“One thing this is going to do is finally put out an answer to this question,” Chehalis Police Chief Glenn Schaffer told The Chronicle.
Schaffer, Chief Carl Nielsen of the Centralia Police Department, Chief Ken Cardinale of the Chehalis Fire Department and Chief Mike Kytta of the Riverside Fire Authority plan to bring the subject to the Centralia and Chehalis city councils and the Riverside Fire Authority board at their next meetings.
They will ask the board and councils to consider funding a six-month feasibility study on breaking off from Lewis County 911 Communications into what Nielsen called “basically Twin Cities dispatch,” undertaken through a contract with ADCOMM Engineering Co.
In a letter from Joe Blaschka Jr., of ADCOMM, to Nielsen, he said the study would “determine an approach to develop a standalone dispatch center using the existing city police and fire radio infrastructure with possible minor improvements.”
The resulting center could be run by one of the member agencies or an interlocal agreement, Blaschka wrote. ADCOMM would perform a number of tasks as part of the study, including meeting with area law enforcement and fire agencies, reviewing possible locations for such a center, outlining possible staffing options, developing a technology model and developing possible draft budgets.
Nielsen said ADCOMM did a similar study on the Lewis County 911 system in 2005. The feasibility study is estimated to cost $46,000. Nielsen said Centralia would pay 60 percent, Chehalis 30 percent and the RFA 10 percent of that cost.
Steve Mansfield, director of emergency services for Lewis County, which includes the 911 Communications Center, said the chiefs have kept him up to speed on their plans to ask for the study while continuing to work on revising their interlocal agreement with county.
“I encourage that. I don’t have any money to help pay for it, but I encourage them to explore all their options,” Mansfield said. “I think they’ll find in the end duplicating this service in our community is going to be more expensive than they thought.”
In the past year, the county’s 911 center has faced short-staffing and discord among dispatchers, who at one point issued a no-confidence vote in then-interim manager Dave Anderson, who was later hired as the permanent manager after not even being asked about the vote. Earlier this year, a dispatcher filed a lawsuit against the county claiming Anderson handed her schedule and personnel records over to the man she accuses of abusing her.
Mansfield was this year placed in charge of the center as part of his Emergency Services Department, though Anderson remains as manager.
In 2017, the 911 Communications Center increased fees to user agencies by 10 percent, bringing the four agencies’ user fees to $461,271 for Centralia, $191,240 for the Chehalis Police Department, $72,359 for the Chehalis Fire Department and $174,230 for the RFA.
The chiefs expect another 10 percent increase for 2018.
“We want to be good stewards of the money we are provided in our budgets,” Cardinale said.
Meanwhile, area fire and police chiefs have expressed concerns since 2015 about the leadership and operations of the center. In May 2016, their concerns were dismissed by then-commissioner Bill Schulte as “bull—.”
The continued problems with the center, such as short staffing and a lack of control over the operation center by its user agencies, has left some fire and law enforcement leaders wondering what they’re getting for their increased fees.
“That’s been one of the biggest frustrations,” Nielsen said.
However, the chiefs said they have seen some improvements recently, and are working with Mansfield to update their interlocal agreement with the county to address some of their concerns.
“Mr. Mansfield we seem to be making some headway with,” Nielsen said.
A draft of the interlocal agreement is now being considered by user agencies, Mansfield said.
“We’re making tremendous progress, just in rebuilding relationships,” he said.
But the chiefs said they believe Lewis County will need to make a serious investment in 911 infrastructure soon, perhaps making now the best time to explore a change.
Mansfield said the county has already made about $800,000 in upgrades to its 911 Communication Center this year, including $300,000 for phones and $500,000 for new radios, which he said did not come out of fees to user agencies.
Beyond the 911 call center, Lewis County’s emergency communications infrastructure includes radio repeaters scattered throughout the county and other equipment, Mansfield said. Replacing all of the county’s emergency communications infrastructure would potentially be a $4 million project, he said.
“The system that’s out there now, I understand it’s old. It’s been old,” he said. “But we’re getting the job done with this system.”
In the past 30 years, Lewis County’s dispatch structure has seen little change, the chiefs said.
Before 1979, the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office, Fire District 12, Centralia and Chehalis each had separate dispatch centers. In 1979, the small Fire District 12 center joined with the county’s, Kytta said.
In the early 1980s, Centralia and Chehalis consolidated. By 1986, all the centers had consolidated into the 911 communications center as it exists today, he said.
“There was a lot of back and forth and they really figured out this was the way to do it back then,” Mansfield said.
However, Cardinale said some regional 911 centers in the country are breaking up into smaller centers to better serve individual agencies.
“911 centers are very complex,” Cardinale said. “Day-to-day operations both on police and fire calls have very unique needs for each of the disciplines. If we did go in this direction, it allows us to better tailor … the center for our individual needs.”
In other situations, Cardinale and the other chiefs advocate for consolidation. At a meeting Wednesday, Cardinale spoke of the benefits of a possible consolidation of Lewis County Fire District 6 and the Chehalis Fire Department.
Mansfield said a single dispatch center serving multiple agencies is the most efficient model.
“I really feel the consolidation of resources, so you’re not duplicating things with the neighbor next door, is the responsible way to go,” Mansfield said.
Nielsen agreed, saying staying with the county’s 911 system makes the most sense from a public safety standpoint. However, the chiefs said they want to do their due diligence to explore every option available.
“We want to make sure (the community is) getting the best service,” Nielsen said.
At the very least, if Centralia, Chehalis and the RFA decide to not go out on their own after the study, Mansfield noted that what they learn could help improve operations at the existing 911 center.