Saturday, July 20, 2024

James City County considers merging emergency dispatch with York County, Williamsburg, Poquoson system

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Every day Williamsburg-area dispatchers field hundreds of emergency phone calls, varying from car accidents to domestic violence to heart attacks.

While a dispatcher may pick up the phone after just a few rings, an emergency call rarely follows a direct route. When a resident dials 9-1-1 from a cell phone, their call pings up to cellular towers then back down to the nearest emergency communications center, where trained dispatchers are on the line.

But in Greater Williamsburg — where the boundaries between the city, James City County and York County are interwoven and not straight lines — sometimes the nearest dispatch center is not the closest to where the emergency is.

That means the call must be transferred, losing more time in the emergency response.

But now, county officials are looking at ways to streamline the process and get first responders to the scene quicker.

James City County’s interim County Administrator William Porter and other county officials are weighing the pros and cons of merging the county’s dispatch with the York-Poquoson-Williamsburg Regional 911 Emergency Communications Center.

“From an emergency standpoint, we’re so interconnected, [James City County] is the only one standing out,” Porter said. “The other localities nearby are on the same system.”

Porter has hired consulting firm Engineering Associates LLC to lead a study evaluating whether it would fiscally and operationally benefit the county to merge dispatch centers.

The firm will be paid an amount “not to exceed $38,600,” Porter said.

The move would mean James City County’s emergency calls would be routed through the York County’s emergency communications center on Goodwin Neck Road. James City County’s 26 dispatch center employees, who now work from the emergency communications center in Toano, could also relocate to York County’s center.

“The consultant hasn’t completed the study yet, so I want to make sure I say ‘if,’” Porter said. “But if the consolidation happens, it will be a seamless transition.”

A James City County house sustained extensive damage after it caught fire Wednesday afternoon. (Courtesy photo/James City County)
James City County fire crews work the scene of a house fire. (Courtesy photo/James City County)

The merge is not set in stone, Porter said, but the Board of Supervisors will “ideally” make the decision to join or not to join by July 1, the beginning of the 2018-2019 budget season.

Smoothing out finances and operations

Merging James City County’s dispatch with York County’s center may help save the county money.

“Part of my job is to see where we can find savings and make improvements to service,” Porter said.

Upgrades to emergency communications systems are inevitable as technology advances or wears out, Porter said. Upgrading this equipment can be “extremely expensive,” but sharing the cost with neighboring localities on the same system may save money.

Having all calls run through the same dispatch center would also allow dispatchers to determine which locality needs to be dispatched to the call without transferring

“Nine times out of ten, people don’t know which jurisdiction they’re in,” Porter said. “You go between York and James City and Williamsburg and you may never know it. This merge could make sure it’s decided [which locality is] first-due when you make the call, and there’s no need to transfer you to the other dispatch center.”

James City County also shares the same radio tower system, which means at least that part of the system is already compatible with York County’s setup.

“If the board decides to do it, the switchover would be seamless,” Porter added. “Residents would call the same number, and it would be no different — and there would be no lapse in service.”

The existing merged system

James City County has been an outlier in the area’s emergency communications for several years.

According to Terry Hall, director of the York-Poquoson-Williamsburg Regional 911 Emergency Communications Center, Williamsburg and Poquoson have been a part of York County’s system for “years.”

Williamsburg Fire Chief Pat Dent said merging the systems in 2010 saved Williamsburg a substantial amount of money: the city needed to upgrade their equipment anyway.

In the Williamsburg area, fire-rescue crews from Williamsburg, York County and James City County already have mutual aid agreements in place, meaning crews from multiple localities often respond to incidents together.

(Courtesy photo/James City County)
(Courtesy photo/James City County)

“James City County could and does respond to York, and vice versa,” Hall said. “If you get involved in an accident, you don’t care what the medic says on the side of it. If your house is on fire, you don’t care who shows up, as long as they have a hose.”

“The only difference when we are all at the scene is the name on the apparatus,” Dent added.

Concerns

While the discussion is still in the early stages, some James City County residents are worried about the impact merging dispatch centers could have.

Colonial Heritage resident John Dean said he has been in touch with Porter to discuss concerns about the prospects of a merge.

Dean’s worries include creating a longer commute for some dispatch center employees, and a dispatch staff that is not acutely aware of James City County’s social and geographic intricacies.

Dean is also concerned a merged dispatch center could not handle the added call volume from James City County.

According to the James City County website, the emergency communications center received 102,492 calls in 2016, the most recent data listed. Of those calls, 52,919 resulted in police or fire-rescue dispatches.

Porter said, however, merging the system would not strain the dispatch center’s resources because no employees would be lost. James City County’s 26 employees would simply expand the York County center’s 48-member staff.

Porter says the study done by the consultants will identify potential problems with a merge, so the Board of Supervisors can make a fully informed decision.

The public will also have the chance to comment on the merge when a proposal reaches the Board of Supervisors.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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