It's been 42 years since the first 911 call was placed in a small Alabama town. Since then, the national standard for the three-digit call for help has surely saved countless lives and thwarted many a criminal. But in Pinellas County, it's time for an upgrade. Sheriff Jim Coats' push to consolidate the county's 911 call center and the dispatch centers of various law enforcement agencies deserves serious consideration.
Most Pinellas residents who never had an occasion to call the county's 911 service are likely unaware of what can happen. Under a structure built in a much different time and with less sophisticated technology, medical emergency calls are handled by the 911 call takers, but all police calls are ultimately passed to a law enforcement dispatcher, be it at the Sheriff's Office or the appropriate local police department.
That can lead to greater lag time in dispatching officers, potentially endangering victims. And it increases the odds that callers become frustrated, incapable of repeating information or even get disconnected.
Coats is pushing to at least consolidate his dispatchers and the county's 911 center, which operates under the County Commission. Ideally that would lead to seamless routing for deputies to all public safety calls in unincorporated Pinellas and the 12 Pinellas cities that contract with the sheriff for police services. He contends the merger would save money and could pave the way for a consolidated countywide dispatch service. He said he doesn't care who would oversee the operation, as long as it's done well.
Of course, such talk of consolidating any local government services immediately runs up against the same kind of parochial resistance that has long flummoxed discussions of consolidating Pinellas' fire service. And there can be downsides to consolidation if personnel aren't trained appropriately or are unfamiliar with the communities or agencies they would be serving. But Coats has proffered a compelling idea that could enhance public safety, save lives and decrease costs — a not insignificant incentive in these tough economic times. Coats has opened the discussion; now the county needs to join in.