911 privatization rumor causes stir in Chicago
The city of Chicago is no stranger to the privatization of municipal services. It already has privatized the collection of street-parking fees and is considering the privatization of Midway Airport. The former hasn’t gone particularly well. Chief among the complaints is that the pay boxes don’t always work properly. Based on that, it’s no surprise that an item published recently in the Chicago Sun-Times that suggested the city is thinking about contracting the city’s 911 emergency services to a third-party vendor created a furor.
The rumor is completely unfounded, according to Robert Drew, director of public affairs for the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, which received numerous calls after the item appeared in the Sun-Times. “This has not been discussed. We’re not sure where this rumor started, but we’re trying to find out,” Drew said. “It wouldn’t be feasible. There are too many privacy and security issues.”
Given the fiscal woes that Chicago and the state of Illinois currently are experiencing, it might seem feasible that the city at least thought about whether such a scenario might work. Not so, Drew said. “Chicago — like a lot of big cities — has been eligible for federal funding,” he said. “So, while the city as a whole as faced some budget issues, they haven’t impacted our operations yet.”
Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association said that he wasn’t shocked by the prospect of a city considering outsourcing its 911 service. He also didn’t dismiss the notion out of hand. Whether such a scenario is workable would depend primarily on the contract language and the city’s ability to enforce it, Fontes said.
“The big issue is compliance. There would have to be some measure of accountability. You can have the world’s best contract, but if it’s not enforced things will go awry very quickly,” Fontes said. “There would also need to be a fall-back provision in case the private network fails. How is that going to be handled in a seamless manner?”
If history is any indicator, privatization of 911 services is a long way off, if it ever happens. Steve Wisely, director of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials’ communications center and 911 services department, said that he could remember only a couple on instances in the past dozen years or so where such a maneuver has been attempted. He clearly remembered one of the efforts, which occurred in a Pennsylvania county in 1998. According to Wisely, it didn’t go very well.
“It was a long-term contract with a very large company,” he said. “But it didn’t last very long, not even two years.”
There other concerns beyond whether the service provider is able to provide the reliability and performance that public safety would demand. For instance, an agency likely would receive a great deal of pushback from any unions that represent call-takers and dispatchers in the center. Also, uniformed personnel may not accept third-party telecommunicators, at least not right away.
“The privatization of 911 service would be considered a very radical change,” Wisely said.