How to avoid the pitfalls of dispatch consolidation

Joining a multi-jurisdictional arrangement for dispatch is fraught with problems; here's how to make it easier


So you're considering entering into — or you're already ticketed to become part of — a multi-jurisdictional arrangement (MJA) for your department's Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) and emergency resources dispatching. You want to become informed and educated on the best way to approach this enormous endeavor, right? 

"The number one thing for leaders to know before entering a multi-jurisdictional/multi-agency dispatch center arrangement is simple: it's not all about you," said Mark Chubb, interim fire chief and CEO at Woodinville (Wash.) Fire and Rescue. "I've been amazed at the way agencies interact with one another when it comes to defining standards and making decisions about technology options. The degree of customization they expect is a real impediment to achieving the efficiencies and effectiveness they require."

The consolidation of all types of local government services, many involving MJAs, is becoming an increasingly popular vehicle for those governments to close the gap between available revenues and desired service deliveries. There are several unique characteristics to consider, however, when such agreements involve a community's emergency-services agencies.

Frequently, the stated goal for consolidating PSAPs and dispatch centers is to achieve higher levels of economy and efficiency while maintaining or improving the effectiveness (outcomes) of those operations. But whose higher levels are we talking about? 

Primary risk
Thus, we come to one of the primary risks to manage when consolidating those entities: not accurately identifying and including all the pertinent stakeholders. This is a critical touchstone because each stakeholder group tends to have its own picture of what efficiency and effectiveness looks like. (We [XYZ Dispatch Center] are already doing it right. It's everyone else that needs to get better). 

Another potential point of failure is not adequately defining measures for the desired efficiencies and effectiveness to the satisfaction of all the stakeholders participating in the MJA.

So where, or who, can you look to for the information you need to really understand all of the risks before you make the leap? A good place to start is the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials.

Finding help
APCO has earned an international reputation as one of the definitive resources in the PSAP/Dispatch Center world for public safety communications expertise, professional development, technical assistance, advocacy and outreach to benefit its members and the public.

One of the most popular services that APCO offers to its member organizations is the Member Assistance Advisory Program. MAAP has a wide-ranging yet simple goal: To provide public safety communications managers and their executive leadership with review, evaluation and analysis of their current operations and advice on the issues surrounding effective and efficient operations — every day.

So what does that mean? To use a NIMS analogy: MAAP is akin to the planning section. They help develop the "incident action plan," but ultimately the incident commander gives the plan and resources to the operations section to implement.

APCO recognizes that a more formal and possibly a longer-term relationship between an agency and a commercial provider of public-safety communications related professional consultant services may be an appropriate option for the agency. MAAP efforts are structured to terminate prior to the point at which professional consultancy services would be engaged to begin the consolidation planning process.

Assistance program
So, back to that consolidation effort involving your PSAP. What don't you know and what do you need to know? That's where APCO's Pre-Consolidation Assistance Program (P-CAP), one of the services within the MAAP portfolio, comes into play. 

Part of what P-CAP offers is a peer-to-peer review. Subject matter experts assist in the size up process to help determine where you've been and where you're at now. Peer reviewers are also a resource when it comes time to draft requests for proposals prior to the time when professional consulting services are contracted for the actual consolidation.

The primary output from the peer-to-peer review will be the scope of work, or incident action plan. When evaluating items listed in the scope of work, participants should constantly be asking the question, Is there synergy or conflict?

Examples of areas to be included in a scope of work should include, but are not limited to, the following areas.

Planning
Planning will involve knowing who has done what. Collect and review all documentation for the existing PSAP/Dispatch Centers and review any current capital-improvement plans.

Review all previously developed short- and long-range plans or studies regarding proposed consolidation. And, interview managers of all involved agencies to determine short- and long-range goals not addressed in an official plan.

Governance
It is also important to know how will new entity be managed, who has input and who will manage it. Review the proposed governance structure, the process for reporting, communications procedures between agency and oversight body, and potential user-group (field agencies) involvement in governance process. 

Policy and review procedure
For the policy and procedure review, know how each stakeholder agency is structured. Review all policy and procedure documents from involved agencies as well as terminology and codes for consistency.

Look at the level of uniformity of service delivery to supporting agencies. And review current chain-of-command for all involved agencies and proposed chain-of-command for consolidated agency.

Operations
Review of any and all relevant documentation related to operations of existing PSAPs and any documents related to operations post-consolidation. Interview supervisory staff of all involved agencies to obtain overview of day-to-day operations.

Look at scheduling and staffing options and potential efficiency considerations. Review operational support technology for potential interoperability or conflict.

Facilities
Look at where will the new entity be located and what it must include. The review will look at existing or proposed facilities and evaluate the equipment for standards compliance and redundancy. Interview staff concerning proposed center layout and workstation environment.

Staffing
The analysis will review and evaluate current and proposed staffing levels as compared to national standards and recognized staffing formulas to determine adequate personnel needs. It will also look at the proposed salary plan, testing and interview process, and selection criteria.

Training program
For the training program, review and evaluate current training programs, to include emergency medical dispatch programs, to ensure consistent foundational training and effective on-going continuing education of personnel. Also, interview training officer and staff primarily responsible for training in all involved agencies regarding current programs and suggestions for development of training for proposed agency.

Radio system
The review will examine existing radio frequencies to ensure compliance with FCC regulations, determine/prevent the potential for interference and determine any need for additional support, frequencies or technology.

A review of the radio communications system includes:

  • Intermodulation studies, transmitter noise, Receiver Desnes Interference Studies
  • Coverage maps based on accepted propagation models such as Longley-Rice
  • Detailed analysis of FCC license (i.e. call sign) to ensure full compliance
  • Review regional systems and interoperability

 

Developing a multi-jurisdictional dispatch system may save local entities money and improve efficiency. With proper planning and analysis, fire department officers can save a great deal of headaches.
 

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