DADE CITY — After years of fizzled talks, a much-discussed idea is set to become reality: Pasco Fire Rescue and the Sheriff's Office will combine their emergency dispatch systems.
County commissioners unanimously approved the new 911 communications center Tuesday.
"Through doing this we will be enhancing services to citizens," said Chief Assistant County Administrator Michele Baker.
Under the old system, when most county residents called 911, their call was directed to Pasco Fire Rescue dispatch. If the caller needed law enforcement help — say the person had just been robbed — then that call was transferred to the Sheriff's Office dispatch. The caller had to explain his or her story twice, at a time when those seconds might mean life or death.
And there was a chance that the call could be dropped during the transfer. Out of the 48,329 calls to Pasco 911 from January through July 2012, there were 290 dropped calls, 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 was small, but it's vital to the person whose call was lost.
"What we're trying to do is to create a system that would make us better," said Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco. "It's going to make us safer as a county. Moments and seconds that are saved could save somebody's life."
Under the plan approved Tuesday, a new Department of Public Safety Communications will be created to handle 911 dispatch for Pasco Fire Rescue and the Sheriff's Office. All of the dispatchers will be cross-trained to handle medical issues, fire dispatching and criminal complaints. The Fire Rescue dispatchers will also go through testing and background checks to be authorized to use the criminal databases the Sheriff's Office dispatchers access.
The change will take effect Oct. 1, when the next budget year starts.
The new department will have 83 employees. If Pasco's larger cities — which have their own 911 dispatch centers — decide to join, the staff could grow to 91. So far New Port Richey and Dade City are exploring the idea, Baker said. Zephyrhills and Port Richey have said they are not interested.
Currently, between the Sheriff's Office and the county, the dispatch staff totals 95. Baker said she expects to trim the staff through attrition rather than layoffs.
"We're not eliminating anybody's job up front," she said. She said current employees would be offered jobs, but she expects some to resign as a result of the new system.
"As we go through the process, they'll self identify," said Nocco, who appeared at the meeting and praised the new combined system as more efficient and safer.
The plan has been proposed for years but always faltered, even after a county-hired consultant recommended the merger in 2010. Nocco thought the idea was good for the county and began pushing it last year.
County Administrator John Gallagher likens the 911 merger to another long-discussed county project with no results.
"This is kind of historic," Gallagher said. "Sometimes I think, 'This is going to happen at the same time as Ridge Road was going to happen.' " The proposed road extension has gone 10 years without a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
As part of the deal, the Sheriff's Office will relinquish the $2.3 million it receives a year to run its communications division. The projected budget for the new 911 department is $5.6 million, about half a million dollars over the existing budget.
"We're going to try and further reduce that number," Baker said. The county already has spent $180,000 on cross training and staff certification as well as new hardware and software. A new building won't be needed, Baker said.
Commission Chairman Ted Schrader said residents don't care how a service is organized as long as it's good.
"When taxpayers drive our roads, they don't care if it's a county street or a city street," he said. "They just want the street to be in good condition. It's the same with 911."
Lisa Buie can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4604.