How to achieve operational uniformity with consolidated communication centers

Striking the balance between agency independence and operational synergy through conflict resolution, funding and governance


By Guillermo Fuentes, MBA

The impetus for consolidating public safety communications centers ranges from trying to improve inadequate facilities, to improving antiquated technologies or saving costs. It’s rare that communications centers are consolidated to improve operational effectiveness.

Communications center consolidation can drive a significant sense of loss of ownership, a dissociation with the new communication center, an “us versus them” attitude and a sense of mistrust. So how do leaders make the best of a consolidated communication center?

Communications center consolidation can drive a significant sense of loss of ownership, a dissociation with the new communication center, an “us versus them” attitude and a sense of mistrust. (Photo/USMC by Sgt. Thomas J. Griffith)
Communications center consolidation can drive a significant sense of loss of ownership, a dissociation with the new communication center, an “us versus them” attitude and a sense of mistrust. (Photo/USMC by Sgt. Thomas J. Griffith)

There are three principle areas to focus on when considering a consolidation or once a consolidation has started:

  1. Operational uniformity versus operational diversity
  2. Dispute resolution
  3. Governance (including funding formula)

Let’s break down each one.

1. Operational uniformity vs operational diversity

One of the most difficult parts of any public safety communications consolidation is striking the right balance between agency independence and creating enough operational synergies for the dispatch center to be sustainable.

So how do you strike the balance? The first step is to be honest with yourself. In all emergency services, our reality is vested in our own memories of moments when the independent center performed exceptionally well. Practically, that means that we remember a moment where we arrived at the scene of a major incident while the crime was still in progress or when the person was still in the water nearly drowning. Unfortunately, those anecdotal remembrances are not a metric. Our memory does not represent an honest assessment of how the independent communications centers were functioning prior to consolidation.

First, make an honest assessment of the performance for call answering, call processing and the dispatch function. Determining those factors and the metrics associated with them can create real-world expectations for the consolidated dispatch. Meeting expectations is often dependent on how realistic the expectations are.

Second, some common deployment modeling needs to be considered for execution speed and to gain public safety operational efficiencies. Creating common dispatch language (codes), closest unit assignment across jurisdictions and how to handle specialty units across jurisdictions is important.

Third, maximize technology to accommodate differences. It is important to recognize that not all agencies have the same needs. Individual community needs cannot be ignored; they must be accommodated. The flexibility in a consolidated dispatch center is a balance of creating goodwill with the agencies the center serves and the cost for the accommodations. When the balance cannot be struck, a dispute occurs.

2. Create a conflict resolution mechanism

Disputes between agencies and also between the agencies and the consolidated dispatch center are bound to happen. Having a predetermined and agreed upon mechanism to resolve disputes is required. Establishing a dispute resolution mechanism is based on two principles:

  • The first principle is that the decision for one agency cannot have a negative effect on the other agencies or the dispatch center as whole.
  • The second principle is that the cost for improvement that is for the benefit of all, or most of, the agencies is borne by all the agencies. The cost for improvement for one agency or a minority of the agencies must be borne by the agency or the minority of the agencies. The proportionality of cost must be distributed along the same lines that establish the consolidated center’s governance.

3. 911 dispatch governance and funding

Coming to an agreement on these points is often most difficult. The larger systems will want more voice, as they will be the ones burdened with the larger cost, and the smaller systems will argue that what is good for the larger system is not required or needed by the smaller systems. Larger systems will expect more representation and smaller agencies will advocate for one-for-one representation (each agency has one vote regardless of size). So how to strike a balance? Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

Some of the most effective models of governance we’ve seen utilize a form of proportional representation. It is fair to say that some weight must be correlated to the size of the agency and the financial contribution that it makes to the collective.

It is also understood that the reason that dispatch center consolidation occurs is that the agencies have more in common than not and want to work together for the common good. With that in mind, a baseline of representation must be a one-for-one representation (each agency has one vote regardless of size). While the exact formula may vary, it generally follows a two-part approach. Assuming the representation is based on a voting system, half the votes should go to one-for-one representation; the other half of the votes should be assigned to proportional representation. As a rule of thumb, no one agency should have more than half the votes.

Being realistic and clear about expectations, predetermining how difficulties will be resolved and how funds and governance decisions will be made are three cornerstone issues. Tackling them early is key to making the best of a consolidated public safety communications center.

About the author

Guillermo Fuentes, MBA is the chief operating officer of the public safety consulting firm, Fitch & Associates. He has designed, managed and supervised public safety communications centers throughout his career. He can be reached directly at gfuentes@fitchassoc.com

This article, originally published February 12, 2019, has been updated.

 

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