Sunday, February 18, 2018
Public safety

Pasco sheriff and fire rescue in talks to merge 911 dispatch

For years, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and the county administration have talked about combining their emergency dispatch systems. Often, there would be a flurry of discussion, such as in 2010 when a county-hired consultant recommended the merger, and then the topic would falter and fade, only to pick up steam again later.

But Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said he wants it done.

Really.

"Let's do it," said Nocco, whose representatives met Wednesday with county officials to discuss the possible merger. "Let's push forward."

Right now, when a person calls 911, that call is directed to Pasco Fire Rescue dispatch if the caller is inside the county jurisdiction. If the caller needs law enforcement help — say the person has just been robbed or there is a burglar inside the house — then that call is transferred to the Sheriff's Office dispatch. The caller has to explain his or her story twice, at a time when seconds might mean life or death.

And there is a chance that the call can be dropped during the transfer. Out of the 48,329 calls to Pasco 911 from January through July, 290 were reported to be dropped, according to Sheriff's Office data. The reasons could be due to a technical malfunction or the caller could have hung up the phone.

The percentage of dropped calls is miniscule — but it's a big deal to the person in danger whose call gets dropped.

"This is about efficiency and possibly saving lives," Nocco said. "For us, that's a no brainer."

Zephyrhills, Dade City, Port Richey and New Port Richey have their own dispatch centers. If they want to join the proposed merged unit, Nocco said, "the door is open to them."

New Port Richey police Chief James Steffens said his agency would look into whether the merger would benefit residents.

"We were invited to see what the county is doing, which we will do," Steffens said. "For us right now, it's just informational."

Hernando County created a consolidated dispatch system in 2007. "There are so many benefits to it," said Denise M. Moloney, spokeswoman for the Hernando County Sheriff's Office. She said, in the past, even if transfers between different agencies went without trouble, "there are seconds lost in that transfer."

Pinellas County is talking about consolidating services. When a person calls 911 in Hillsborough County, the caller gets a law enforcement dispatcher in whatever jurisdiction the call was placed. If the call is medical, it is transferred to fire rescue.

Brad Herron, general manager for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Communications Bureau, said the agency has researched consolidation in the past, but it never made sense.

"It is extremely, extremely difficult — and I've been doing this for 25 years — for any county to have one communications center where, when you dial 911, that person who answers the phone is trained in law enforcement dispatching, medical dispatching and fire dispatching," Herron said.

In Pasco's case, there are 59 Sheriff's Office employees and 30 Fire Rescue county emergency dispatch workers who would need to be brought to the same level of training. All would need to be able to help callers equally with medical issues and crimes: a heart attack or a stabbing, delivering a baby or dealing with a kidnapping. The county employees would have to go through tests and background checks get authorization to use the criminal databases the Sheriff's Office dispatchers access.

"People would have to understand that to do a true consolidation where everybody is trained to handle every kind of call that comes in is a long-term goal with lots of training," Herron said.

He also said the dispatchers would likely demand a higher salary with the additional work.

The Pasco Sheriff's Office isn't talking about money — what could be saved, what would have to be spent in training and technology — saying it's too early in the process.

"We don't know at this point," said sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll.

Nocco said it's not about reducing the staff, either. "We are not laying anybody off," he said.

County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said she supports the idea and thinks it would be good for citizens. She said there would be less duplication of work.

"We need to come together and make this work," she said. "It will be a benefit, a win-win, all the way around."

Times correspondent Robert Napper contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.

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