In today's economic climate, government officials are grappling with ways to save money. One way is to consolidate the dispatch and call-taking functions of multiple first-responder agencies within one brick-and-mortar facility. However, to do it right takes planning and the ability to make tough staffing decisions, said Steve Wisely, interim director of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials communications center and 911 services division.

Fewer tax dollars are expected to be collected in 2009 and the coming years, so municipalities are warming up to public-safety answering point (PSAP) consolidation to save money and improve efficiencies, Wisely said.

However, several important steps must be taken to achieve a successful consolidation. First and foremost, a working relationship between government officials and public-safety officers is essential from the onset. Wisely advised that a roundtable of sorts be established where PSAP governance can be determined and operational procedures streamlined.

“If the agencies feel they have input to the day-to-day operations, the bigger issues, then they will come to the table a little bit easier,” he said.

Staffing also must be addressed early in the planning process. Personnel may have to be retrained because policies, procedures and equipment will be different. Operations managers also may have to adjust salaries and titles because the pay scale of smaller agencies sometimes is lower than that of larger agencies. According to Wisely, 85% of PSAPs nationwide employ five people or less; in such centers the so-called IT guru may be the person who just happens to be really good on computers. But a large consolidated PSAP may require an information technology specialist to manage the more complex computer, GIS, radio and telephony systems.

“In a PSAP center where you have a considerable amount of CAD systems, you may have to hire a dedicated person for technical support,” Wisely said. “Technical support is very important, especially if you get into a larger CAD system and into GIS.”

But some believe that it will be more difficult to justify hiring such specialists in an economic environment that puts intense pressure on cities and counties to cut costs. That will create myriad additional challenges beyond the logistics of the merger, said Bill Cade an advisor with public-safety consultancy GeoComm.

“PSAPs will have to determine the workload versus work force, which means looking at call volume and processing times to make sure shift staffing is right,” Cade said.

Keeping costs down at a regional PSAP is a major challenge, agreed Joe Ribeiro, director of emergency communications for Eagle County's PSAP in Vail, Colo. Following a 1998 consolidation, the county's dispatchers now coordinate the response of 12 disparate agencies across an area of 800 square miles. Despite the fact that personnel costs will eat up about three-quarters of the PSAP's 2009 operations budget of $2.28 million, the busy center — which often handles as many as 400 calls per shift — operates at a cost per event of $15.53. “It's the best cost per event in Colorado, as far as I know,” he said.

Ribeiro added that the move to consolidate multiple agencies within a single brick-and-mortar facility inherently creates interoperable communications between the agencies served by the center.

“Because we are consolidated here in the county, all of the responders can see each other's data,” Ribeiro explained. “When we are sending out a fire call, all the agencies can see the nature of the call and updates that are coming from the field.”

Wisely also believes the ability to share both voice and data information over one, interoperable system will be an important driving factor of PSAP consolidation.

“Since 9/11 we've heard of interoperability. In most people's mind they think of radio and push-to-talk to other agencies,” Wisely said. “But interoperable data is just as important and in some cases it may be more important. And it certainly is important in a larger center deploying multiple fire, police and EMS agencies, who then can share data a little bit easier.”

For all the benefits of PSAP consolidation, Ribeiro has one concern. He believes the there comes a point where a PSAP gets too large to effectively manage incidents. Currently, the Eagle County dispatchers are familiar with the area in which they serve. They know the neighborhoods. They recognize the needs of the citizens the center serves and have relationships with first responders in the area.

“If we expand our coverage to other counties, we're so far removed we wouldn't have a good grasp on what goes on,” Ribeiro said.

Rick Jones, operations issue director for the National Emergency Number Association, said agencies in any stage of PSAP consolidation need to be forward-looking when deploying new technology. That means an emphasis on IP-based infrastructure that will prepare centers for the future.

“Centers should consider interoperable systems that can run over an IP network, which are crucial to moving towards [next-generation] 911,” Jones said.

Indeed, Ribeiro said the next step for the Eagle County PSAP is to move to NG911. Running systems over an IP backbone will let his team develop contingency plans if a disaster wiped out the brick-and-mortar facility.

“We're not in a very good place to be backed up or distribute our call load if we were to have a catastrophe at our center,” he said. “When we get to IP, we will better be able to — with the flip of a switch — reroute our calls to multiple centers.”

But even though the PSAP's current phone system is at the end of its shelf-life, Ribeiro is cautious about investing in new technology now and “being on the bleeding edge of NG911.” He would prefer to wait for the standards to be solidified. He also would prefer more state and federal funding to make the migration to NG911 easier.

“It's infrastructure-based, and if all I need is what is behind my walls … servers can be anywhere in the world,” Ribeiro said. “Why does it then need to be paid for by Eagle County?”

Cade noted that while NG911 is certainly worth considering, “it's not going to happen tomorrow.” Like Ribeiro, he sees the logical benefits to NG911, but is concerned that the technology hasn't been fully defined and standards are not set.

“If it's NG-compliant, what does that mean? We haven't defined what NG is totally, so how can you be compliant to a standard that may not even exist yet,” he said. “As a result, we don't believe every PSAP in this country is going to go to an NG911 environment any time in the very near future.”

Cost per event at the Eagle County public-safety answering point in Vail, Colo. The PSAP was consolidated in 1998.