New Canaan and Westport are about to combine their fire department dispatch services, an arrangement officials said will be a model for a future regional emergency dispatch center in Fairfield County.
New Canaan Fire Chief Jack Hennessey believes the merger will help improve service and public safety and reduce emergency response times.
The biggest issue with New Canaan's existing dispatch system is where the dispatchers are located. New Canaan's fire dispatch center is the Southwest Regional Communications Center, also known as CMED, which is on the roof of Bridgeport Hospital and is largely focused on emergency medical service calls.
"CMED's facility and equipment is very basic, and offers little current technology in hardware or software," Hennessey wrote in the memo to the Town Council.
When county-wide EMS call volume is high, the New Canaan Fire Department dispatch "suffers due to dispatcher overload," according to the chief. "CMED dispatchers have to monitor the county, not just a couple of towns," he wrote.
The Westport Fire Department's communications center, however, is "state-of-the-art, for a town their size," according to Hennessey. "It was designed for expansion and can be ramped up at little expense to accommodate the new regional system."
The Town Council approved Aug. 27 an agreement between the two towns, effective Oct. 1.
Merging dispatch centers
In addition to call overload, CMED does not offer computer-aided dispatch or mobile data terminal infrastructure, which Westport does, and has no plans to significantly upgrade its infrastructure or service in the near future, Hennessey told the council.
Besides, the distractions of monitoring EMS units in multiple towns simultaneously have caused "some significant dispatch errors" over the past years in New Canaan, the chief said.
The new system will provide the town with a dedicated fire dispatch service based in a fire department and with a staff dedicated to fire emergencies, which Hennessey believes will improve the dispatchers' awareness.
This is going to be the first partnership of the kind in the county, but not in the state. Other towns throughout Connecticut have already teamed up and Litchfield County has one dispatch center for fire, medical and police for the entire county.
"Westport has the resource and New Canaan has a need," he said.
Wesport's regional dispatch center
The town of Westport will maintain its existing infrastructure and staff, and would offer them in support of the NCFD dispatch. All existing communications equipment in New Canaan will be integrated into this new system.
The Westport Fire Department dispatch center is staffed by civilian personnel and its staffing level will increase from one dispatcher on duty 24/7 to two dispatchers during the daytime hours. New Canaan will pay for the additional employee.
The addition of New Canaan incident responses to the current workload for dispatchers is 2.7 responses a day, according to the chief.
The Westport Fire Department also will contribute its existing communications infrastructure to the project at no cost to New Canaan or any other future partners, which Hennessey considered "a savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars."
"As more people come into the system, the cost share should be easier for all the towns," he said.
However, an annual service fee will be imposed on New Canaan. For the initial term -- Oct. 1, 2014, to June 30, 2015 -- New Canaan will pay to Westport a fee of $58,500. For each extension period, the fee will be $78,000. (In fiscal year 2014, the NCFD spent $39,225 on CMED dispatch. In the current fiscal year, the approved dispatch budget is $78,000.)
Partnering with Westport will give the NCFD access to a mobile data terminal and a computer-aided dispatch system.
"Not having to purchase this expensive computer hardware will be a significant capital savings for New Canaan," Hennessey said.
"We're going to be able to get on their license and use their equipment, put our data in it, and it's going to save the town of New Canaan a tremendous amount of money," he added. "This is something we've wanted to do for a long time."
The Westport Fire Department hopes to develop its dispatch center into a multi-town regional emergency center.
"All (fire chiefs) agree regionalization of the fire service in our area is the future," Hennessey said in the memo. "Smaller departments sharing expensive resources to conserve tax dollars and maintain service levels."
The chief believes there may be a mandate in the future for small towns to consolidate dispatch centers. The cost to maintain so many local centers in the state "is a fiscal burden," he said.
Hennessey noted he's been talking to officials in other towns and several also have expressed interest in becoming partners.
Councilman Penny Young said she had "a little apprehension" about merging services with other towns and eventually losing local control.
"Is this the first step of regionalization of services?" she asked the chief.
Hennessey said the dispatch infrastructure "is very expensive" and such regionalization statewide would reduce costs.
"We'll be ahead of the curve when it happens," he said. "For some things, regionalization works, for other things it doesn't work, and this is one of the things that we believe will work."
He said the goal is to bring EMS and police dispatchers onboard and eventually create a regional fire department repair facility and a regional training facility.
Handling 9-1-1 calls
Young also asked Hennessey whether he was "comfortable" with the new dispatch center in the event of a regional crisis when it comes to communication and priority setting.
The chief said the two departments have established a contingency plan to handle regional emergencies such as severe weather or other catastrophic events.
In such situations, an "emergency decentralization" will take effect, which means the New Canaan Police Department would transfer fire emergency calls to the NCFD instead of Westport.
"When something really bad happens, the police department can't handle the call volume and we can't either," he said. "So we would split the fire department up, and put a couple of dispatchers in the fire house ... and prioritize all of the calls ourselves."
The location where 9-1-1 calls are first received is known as the public safety answering point, or PSAP. The PSAPs in Westport and New Canaan are each town's police departments. In both towns, 9-1-1 calls that report fire emergencies are transferred by a police dispatcher to a secondary dispatch center -- CMED for New Canaan. If it's a fire or an EMS call in New Canaan, the officer pushes a button and the call is transferred up to CMED in Bridgeport, where they will make the dispatch to EMS or fire.
After receiving the transferred 9-1-1 call from New Canaan, dispatchers at CMED assess the nature of the incident and dispatch fire department personnel and apparatus to the scene.
"When we do the change, there will actually be two buttons on the console," Hennessey said.
"It'll be completely seamless for the homeowner. They won't even know the difference. There will be an extra button on the console for the operator at the police department to figure out where to route the call, and that's the only real difference."
LoMonte called the self-renewable document between the two towns "an evergreen agreement."
"It's a one-year commitment and it'll automatically renew for additional one-year periods," he said.
Councilman Steve Karl said a renewable agreement "scares" him. LoMonte said the towns could change the arrangement and renew it as frequently as they'd like, but the Town Council approved the document as is during the meeting.
Either town can withdraw from the agreement as long as there's a three-month notice or they can end the agreement anytime if it's a mutual decision
Westport's Representative Town Meeting approved the agreement Tuesday night, Sept. 2.
"We think we're going to get improved services all the way around," Westport Fire Chief Andrew Kingsbury told the RTM Tuesday. "Westport will see positive financial results from this... (and) really one of the most important things is collaboration on future regionalization projects."
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