Delayed police response caused by the county's multilayered dispatch system could be eliminated by consolidating services, the Pinellas County sheriff says.
The current system has a main 911 center that fields emergency calls for help. If the call is for medical aid, the 911 center dispatches help immediately. But if the caller needs a police officer, he is routed to the sheriff or one of the city departments, which will then send out an officer.
This means that people who need police must tell their stories to at least two different operators, causing frustration and delay, said Bob Gualtieri, chief deputy at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, which handles more than 1,000 calls a day.
"Who in the world thinks that they're going to get transferred to the police and (will) have to tell their story all over again?" Gualtieri asked. "Citizens get extremely frustrated with us. They say, 'I've told this story; why do I have to tell it again?' … This happens every day. I mean, every day."
In many cases where medical and police help are needed, deputies find that the fire departments and ambulances beat them to the scene because of the lag in dispatch. That wouldn't be a problem except that firefighters can't go into a scene if there's a threat of bodily harm — as in a domestic dispute where one person might have a gun. So paramedics arrive and sit and wait until the deputies make sure everything is safe for them to go in.
This is when the system is at its best, Gualtieri said.
When it doesn't function as well, callers may hang up during the transfer because they are frustrated or because they are in danger of bodily harm and simply can't hang on any longer. The sheriff's dispatchers call back if they have the number, but people who are being attacked aren't likely to answer the phone. So deputies are sent, but have no idea what awaits when they arrive.
In other cases, calls are lost in transfer. Some callers get bounced among various jurisdictions while dispatchers try to determine the proper police authority to answer the call.
The situation is likely to get worse, Gualtieri said. The county wants its 911 dispatchers to ask more questions up front so they can decide whether both a firefighter/paramedic and an ambulance are needed, or whether one or the other will do. Although those questions might not take long, they will delay any transfer to law enforcement and increase a person's irritation at having to tell a story repeatedly to different people.
And, Gualtieri said, having several dispatching agencies is expensive.
"At a minimum, it requires two people funded by taxpayer dollars to handle every 911 call that is not solely medical," he said. "We think it's in everybody's interest to consolidate this. (It makes sense) from a fiscal standpoint and a delivery-of-service standpoint."
The county's system answered 566,970 calls in 2009. The county routed 233,200, or more than 40 percent of them, to other agencies, including the sheriff, police departments, the Florida Highway Patrol and animal services. Deputies say their system answered 427,859 calls last year that came directly to the department. Those include nonemergency calls. The department also handled 36,680 911 emergency calls, for a total of 464,539 calls in 2009.
Gualtieri said he's not sure how much could be saved because no analysis has been done, but simply merging the sheriff's dispatch with 911 dispatch should have substantial savings. The department recently estimated that Clearwater could save about $1.8 million a year by turning over the city's dispatch to the sheriff.
As it is, the sheriff spends about $5.6 million a year on its communications division. The county EMS budget shows a larger expenditure for emergency communications — about $7 million funded by property taxes and a 50-cent fee on telephone bills.
Those costs do not include the amounts cities spend on their own dispatch systems. Nor do the number of calls include those that go directly to individual police departments. Nor does it include any data from the Florida Highway Patrol.
Not everyone sees the multiple dispatching system as a problem. Pinellas Park police Chief Dorene Thomas said she has heard no complaints from her staff. And she has heard no complaints from other chiefs in her role as chair of the Pinellas Police Standards Council.
"I'm not hearing anything about dropped calls," Thomas said. "I'm not hearing anything about response time delayed."
Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala said he's aware of the complaints and of the proposed solution.
"We are open to all possibilities. The determining factor as far as we're concerned, who can do it better, cheaper, faster. If it is the sheriff, we would be happy to turn it over to him," LaSala said. "That'll be an ongoing conversation."
It might be too early to consider the proposal, he said. A better time might be when the county's communications and management building is closer to reality, which would provide a unified facility in which to house a merged service.
The sheriff's idea comes at a time when the county is in dire financial straits and is searching for ways to make its countywide emergency medical service and fire systems more fiscally efficient. The county has hired a consultant for $130,000 to study the system. The report is overdue, but LaSala has said it will be out before Christmas. It is unclear whether the study includes the county's dispatch system.
Gualtieri said Sheriff Jim Coats does not particularly care who runs a merged system. The important thing, he said, is that callers get the medical and police help they need as soon as possible. That's not happening now.
"It's a broken system," Gualtieri said.
Reach Anne Lindberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8450.