After years of talking, the sheriff and the county have taken the first concrete step toward merging the sheriff's dispatch and 911 call centers.
A committee of staff members from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and the county's department of public safety services has been created. Later on, the committee will be expanded to include representatives from fire and city policing agencies. The committee's goal: Consolidate the call centers by 2014 when construction of the sheriff's public safety complex is complete.
The result, officials say, will be lower costs and better service to those who need help.
"We are going to work together on creating the most efficient and effective emergency communications operation we can," Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala said. "Better, cheaper, faster."
But LaSala said he "wouldn't put a figure" on how much the merger might save.
"It's going to be less expensive," LaSala said.
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he is thrilled that consolidation is finally going to happen.
"Finally," Gualtieri said. "It's long overdue. We're finally going to make some progress on it."
Currently, Pinellas' dispatch system is multilayered. If someone calls 911 for medical help, the dispatcher notifies the firefighter/paramedics who are closest to the person in need. The dispatcher also notifies the Sunstar dispatch center that an ambulance is needed. Then Sunstar assigns an ambulance and sends it to the scene.
If someone calls 911 for police help, the dispatcher routes that person to the sheriff or one of the city police departments and dispatchers at those centers quiz the caller and send police help.
If someone needs both medical and police help, the 911 dispatcher sends the firefighter/paramedics, notifies Sunstar dispatch and then transfers the caller to the sheriff or police.
Gualtieri has long complained that the setup delays police response when it's most needed. Not only that, Gualtieri said, the system causes needless frustration as frightened, stressed people have to repeat their story to at least two dispatchers.
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. 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 wait until the deputies make sure everything is safe for them to go in.
Those problems exist when the system is operating at its best, the sheriff said. When it isn't, calls are dropped in transfer, callers get bounced among jurisdictions while dispatchers try to determine the proper police authority to answer the call, or callers hang up during the transfer because they are frustrated or because they are in danger of bodily harm and 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.
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"When you look at it, it's an ineffective system and it causes problems," Gualtieri said.
Gualtieri has lobbied for at least three years to change the system and officials have long paid lip service to the idea. But last year, the County Commission discussed the possibility extensively during sessions on long-term planning. And on March 2, LaSala and Gualtieri sent the commission a memo saying the committee had been formed.
Merging the 911 center with the sheriff's dispatch center will not eliminate all the layers. Cities that have their own dispatchers could keep them or join in.
"We're going to offer the opportunity for all of them to be in on the ground floor in this," Gualtieri said. "That's up to the cities. I would hope people would want to join."
Nor will the merger necessarily eliminate the ambulance dispatch center.
"I think it will remain independent, but I wouldn't rule out discussions if it makes sense to create a more unified system," LaSala said. "We will have open and ongoing discussions with any and everyone involved."
Anne Lindberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8450.