As soon as a resident’s fingers dial 911, a chain of events unfolds.
The emergency call hits a cellphone tower and a police car or ambulance shows up at the caller’s door — but there’s far more that goes on behind the scenes, from the 911 system’s geolocation technology, to a dispatcher’s calm voice over the phone.
Now, that emergency communication software — critical to public safety in James City County — is nearing its expiration date. That means a “significant” financial investment for the county, said Scott Stevens, the county’s administrator .
The county’s computer-aided dispatch system is in need of an upgrade. Deputy Police Chief Steve Rubino said the records management system used by police will no longer be “developed as robustly after next year,” which recently sold.
The records management system will still be supported, but a new system will likely need to be put in place within the next few years, Stevens said.
Administrators have not determined how the county will proceed, but are weighing several options, such as merging the county dispatch center with the York-Poquoson-Williamsburg 911 Emergency Communications Center or buying new software systems.
Stevens has created a chart weighing the pros and cons of each option, which ranks certain items such as employee care, level of service, cost and more.
Either way, the county and its Board of Supervisors will need to make a decision within the next several months, Stevens said. Preliminary discussions are slated for the board’s work session Sept. 24.
The cost of each option is not yet clear, but upgrading the dispatch and records systems would each probably cost in the range of $1 to $2 million — a “multi-million” dollar investment, Stevens said.
“If you’re getting ready to spend that type of money, you gotta be prepared to spend it in the right place,” Stevens said.
Stevens said one reason the decision needs to be made soon — besides the threat of software expiring — is based around the availability of state grant funding.
The Virginia Information Technologies Agency offers a Next Gen 911 grant to help localities upgrade their emergency communications technology to next-generation software.
That money could help James City County with the software upgrade, if that’s the route the county chooses, he said.
“The James City County NG911 Migration Proposal from Virginia Information Technologies Agency estimates the one time cost at $210,744.28 which the 911 Services Board has committed to fund,” Stevens wrote in an email. “The monthly recurring costs for NG911 is estimated to be $11,155.81 which is more than $6,000 above our current monthly cost for 911 service. The 911 Services Board will cover the monthly increase for the first 24 months after migration then James City County will be responsible for the full amount.”
Merges, on the other hand, typically can save money, but Stevens said he doesn’t yet have a figure for what merging could cost. If merged, the counties would need to have a financial agreement in place to handle paying employees, equipment and upgrades and more.
Problems with existing system
Stevens said updating or merging the two systems between York County and James City County could help cut seconds off some 911 calls.
While 911 technology can also help dispatchers see where the caller is, there are still some calls that are incorrectly routed to the wrong locality in the Historic Triangle. In those situations, the call needs to be transferred to the proper dispatch center, adding moments to the dispatch time when every millisecond counts.
The boundaries between Williamsburg, James City County and York County are not straight lines, and in some areas a traveler can go between all three localities in a matter of a few minutes.
James City and York has an “intermediary” system that helps the two different dispatch systems communicate information with each other, but often times, the respective dispatchers are operating blind to what’s happening in the other locality, Stevens said.
Merging systems would mean all dispatchers are in the same building and using the same system, regardless of which locality the call is coming from.
Upgrading the current James City County dispatch system could also help if it is upgraded to a system that “talks” better to York County’s emergency communications center, Stevens said.
Taking care of employees
The possibility of merging the two dispatch centers publicly popped up in early 2018.
At the time, some dispatchers reached out to WYDaily concerned their employment would be impacted without them having a say in the matter.
Stevens does not plan to leave dispatchers and other communications employees out of the discussions.
Stevens said, so far, the county has tried to involve communications center staff in discussions about the future of the center.
In the case of a merge, the county is still figuring out what exactly that would look like for its 28 dispatcher positions. Stevens said York County is open to discussions of a merge and how best to handle the transition.
“I don’t want to mistreat staff … cut them loose,” he said. “The message that sends to the rest of the workforce isn’t a good message — that you’re expendable and we don’t care. That’s not the truth.”
Ultimately, the county’s decision will likely be driven by how to provide residents the best service, but the opinions and livelihoods of dispatchers are something the county is factoring in, Stevens said.
“We hope if we consolidate, it is as least-damaging to [employees] as it can be,” Stevens said.
Clarification 4:15 p.m. Aug. 30: Paragraphs 4 and 5 have been changed from their original text citing information from Stevens, to reflect additional information about the county’s records management system and its support. The records management system currently in use is a product of Superion, a company that was recently acquired by Central Square. Central Square has said it will continue to support and update the RMS and CAD systems as long as localities are using them, but it wont develop the systems as “robustly” after next year, Police Deputy Chief Steve Rubino said. Stevens said he still believes a different RMS software will be used in the next few years.