By Steve Giegerich And Joel Currier
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS — A new fortress-like dispatching center that soon will house county police and regional state-of-the-art emergency communications also may someday become the nerve center for most of the county’s fire and ambulance calls.
Several fire district officials are downplaying the possibility that St. Louis County could swallow fire and ambulance dispatching now handled by Central County Emergency 911.
But County Police Chief Jon Belmar last month told the Board of Police Commissioners that some fire and ambulance districts have shown interest in contracting with the county once the $16.2 million communications center in Ohlendorf West Park opens.
“The police department did not solicit this conversation,” Belmar assured the board. “The agencies came to us.”
The county is now targeting an August startup for the 32,000-square-foot center along Hanna Road near Ballwin. The new center, built with reinforced concrete walls and blast-resistant windows to withstand a powerful tornado, was originally scheduled to open last summer.
Belmar estimates that nearly 80 percent of the county’s fire and ambulance calls will eventually be channeled through a center that will allow dispatchers, police and firefighters across the St. Louis metro area to communicate on an integrated radio system.
The consolidation of police, fire and ambulance dispatch under one roof, Belmar added, could cut emergency response times by almost 30 seconds.
“I would argue that it will save lives down the road,” the chief said.
Some fire district officials say they have had problems with Central County 911, which serves 34 fire and ambulance districts in St. Louis County. And yet, fire chiefs warn that a discussion of jumping over to the county is premature.
“I’ve got 42 years of service in the Spanish Lake Fire Protection District, and I’ve never had issues that I’ve experienced in the last six to eight months,” said Chief Michael Flavin. “The calls and the engine house are operating just fine. It’s communications on the street from our portables to the dispatch center and back where we’re getting a lot of static.”
After his firefighters had problems communicating with dispatchers during a house fire last month, Flavin said he called a meeting with county officials, the Black Jack and Riverview fire chiefs, cellphone company representatives and Central County’s director, Mike Turner, to discuss solutions.
“We have to find a solution immediately for firefighter safety,” Flavin said.
Turner says he is aware of concerns from some districts about Central County 911 transitioning from older technology to using GPS data to dispatch emergency vehicles. He said Central County has been upgrading the system since it took over dispatching from North Central County Fire Alarm last fall. He insists dispatching service in the county has never been better.
“We anticipated in the first six months there would be adjustments,” Turner said. “We’re at that six months now. Anytime you have an expansion of this magnitude, you’re going to have changes. I’m proud of what we’ve done and I’m very pleased with the level of service we’re providing.”
He said the number of emergency calls dispatched by Central County has quadrupled in the past year. “Calls are getting out much faster than they used to,” he said. “While we have more calls, we also have more people.”
He said he would be disappointed if agencies now with Central County left in favor of the new communications center, which Turner described as “the Taj Mahal of 911 centers.”
Some county fire district officials, however, warn that a discussion about turning communications over to the county is premature.
“We can’t make a commitment based on speculation when St. Louis County isn’t up and running yet,” said Michael Gantner, chief of the Black Jack Fire Protection District.
Gantner’s statement captured the prevailing sentiment among the majority of county fire districts. Some are excited about the potential to consolidate dispatching services in one place.
“We want to wait to see the eventual service level and the cost, but we’re ready, willing and able to help St. Louis County develop that kind of system,” said Terry Loehrer, chief of the Pattonville Fire District. “Everybody we’ve talked to says it’s a much more efficient manner of dispatching to have it in a joint operation.”
Loehrer said a faster system could save lives, citing what he said was a three-minute delay in rescuers responding to a single-engine plane crash in Creve Coeur Lake in October 2012. Loehrer said the delay stemmed from 911 calls being bounced among Maryland Heights police, North Central County Fire Alarm (now part of Central County 911) and the Pattonville Fire Protection District. The crash killed the pilot, Russell Hazelton, 78, and his wife, Suzanne, 69, of Town and Country.
“I don’t care if it’s 30 or 45 seconds, it could mean a lot,” he said.
A patchwork of systems sends police, fire trucks and ambulances to emergencies in St. Louis County. Some emergency vehicles are dispatched from municipal law enforcement call centers. Other equipment arrives at a fire or accident scene via Central County Emergency 911. Or an emergency call can be routed from the county police 911 system to Central County.
It is on many of the calls relayed to Central County that Belmar says the time to dispatch a call could shrink to just a few seconds from 30.
Several of the districts served by Central County joined after the dissolution of dispatch agencies for parts of north and south St. Louis County in the past year.
Northeast Fire Protection District Chief Quinten Randolph said he has observed problems with the quality of Central County 911’s dispatching service. He believes Central County 911’s rapid growth into new territory in north St. Louis County has meant relying too heavily on computers instead of experienced dispatchers who know the area. The result, he says, has meant the wrong mix of equipment being sent to emergencies.
“I think Central County is trying to do a good job, but there are some glitches and we’ve had some issues,” Randolph said. “It’s all so new so fast, and with any company that grows 300 percent in call volume in one year, you’re going to have some issues.”
In February, a Central County dispatcher mistakenly sent firefighters to a Ferguson house instead of a Florissant home that was burning because the homes had identical street names and numbers. Central County pledged to identify all duplicate addresses in the county and work to prevent similar errors.
Randolph was among those who said they would consider services from the county once the new communications center opens. Some chiefs who wouldn’t talk on the record said privately that they were reluctant to sign on with the county without knowing how long construction of the new building would take.
“Some of the bigger agencies are anxious to get this thing straightened out,” acknowledged Garry Earls, chief operating officer for the county.
Earls said most of the inquiries about switching to county dispatch are directed to him by districts looking to reduce their current communications fees.
Belmar and Earls say the county system will prove more cost effective.
Belmar said his department is already looking toward the day when its dispatchers handle both fire and police calls. Adding fire service would require training of existing dispatchers and perhaps hiring 20 more.
(c)2014 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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