Pasco County is merging its emergency communications departments, ending an archaic and duplicative system that increases the chances for dropped calls and slower responses by deputies and firefighters.
"It's going to make us safer as a county,'' Sheriff Chris Nocco told county commissioners Tuesday morning. "The seconds that are saved could save somebody's life.''
Indeed. Commissioners correctly blessed the new arrangement, creating a county-controlled Department of Public Safety Communications comprised of emergency dispatchers now working for the Pasco Sheriff's Office and for county Fire Rescue. Cross-training already has begun and the commission also agreed to pony up more than $770,000 for equipment upgrades to complete the consolidation by Oct. 1.
County Administrator John Gallagher called the merger historic and he and others said it will improve public safety. Much of the credit goes to Nocco, who paid little heed to the political turf battles that undermined past negotiations to combine law enforcement and fire rescue dispatching. Pasco's four cities with public safety departments — Port Richey, New Port Richey, Dade City and Zephyrhills — would be wise to follow Nocco's lead.
The merger, so far, involves only county agencies. Pasco's cities shouldn't skip this opportunity to share in the effort that promises cost-savings to municipalities and better emergency services to the public.
The growing popularity of cellphones also should encourage cities' participation. Emergency landline calls from city addresses go directly to municipal departments. However, cellphone calls are routed to the county dispatch system before being relayed back to the appropriate city agency, increasing response times and the chances of a dropped call. Almost one-third of Florida's adults live in cellphone-only households, according to federal estimates.
The inefficiency goes beyond the cities. The current county setup is simply outdated, inefficient and reflective of past acrimony among sheriffs and county administrators. Dispatchers from the Sheriff's Office and Fire Rescue sit in the same building, separated by a partition. If the emergency call to 911 requires a law officer, the Fire Rescue dispatcher transfers the call to a police dispatcher on the other side of the wall or to a local police department. It forces callers facing emergencies or life-threatening situations to repeat their request for help.
Statistics released in 2012 showed an average of 41 dropped calls each month, though that number includes callers who hang up on their own. It's a small percentage of the 6,900 calls received monthly at the 911 center but it is a percentage that should go down even more beginning Oct. 1.