By JOHN FLOWERS
ADDISON COUNTY — Vermont State Police dispatchers at one of the state’s four E-911 communications centers may soon stop fielding “non-emergency” calls for local police, rescue and fire departments due to the heavy volume of work they are now handling.
At issue are citizen calls made to local police departments’ seven-digit phone numbers during times when the local dispatchers are not on duty. That’s usually 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. and Sundays, for most local departments.
During that time, anyone who calls — for example, the Middlebury police number at 388-3191, or Bristol police at 453-2533 — currently finds their call picked up by a VSP dispatcher in Rutland, who then directs it to the appropriate local public safety official.
But due to staffing issues, the VSP may stop taking those calls.
State police officials stressed the shift in policy would not have an impact on E-911 calls, and that the switch would not occur until the affected departments have found additional technology or manpower to field their own seven-digit calls at times when their local dispatchers are off duty.
Addison County officials this week were candid in their displeasure with news the VSP may soon drop the service, a move they said could cost communities plenty by forcing them to hire additional dispatchers or acquire pagers/cell phones through which to have calls automatically routed to officers in the field.
“As a police officer, I’m not crazy about this idea; as a taxpayer, I’m offended,” said Bristol Police Chief Kevin Gibbs.
The proposed change would affect more than 30 police, fire and rescue agencies in Addison County, according to VSP Capt. Donald Patch, commander of the state police “C Troop,” which includes the New Haven, Rutland and Shaftsbury stations.
Patch explained that the Rutland Communications Dispatch Center provides dispatching services for Rutland, Addison and Bennington counties and is an E-911 answering point. There are at least three dispatchers on duty at any one time at the center, and they must field all the calls — emergency and otherwise — that are funneled in from those three counties.
Patch explained the dispatch center workers have been facing a huge volume of calls, creating a high-stress environment that has resulted in some of them leaving.
“Each individual (agency) does not generate much business, but when you add them together…” Patch said of the bottleneck of calls that can occur at the Rutland center.
“It just seems like we are constantly looking for dispatchers,” he added. “Their training process is more than three months long. It is expensive to not have them stick with it.”
As a result, Patch said he began to study ways to make the job more manageable for dispatchers at the Rutland center.
“How do I lessen the load and get to the core of a PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point) being an emergency communications center?” Patch said of his task.
He came to the conclusion that the Rutland center was receiving many non-emergency, seven-digit calls that were being relayed from local departments without local dispatching coverage.
While some of those seven-digit calls are placed by folks who need immediate police attention (and who probably should have called 911), other calls are from people who may have a general question, have become locked out of their car, have lost a pet or who may just want to know when the local chief will next have office hours.
Patch recently met with local police chiefs to tell them about the problem and talk about alternative ways for departments to field their seven-digit calls during off-hours.
“With the right technology, I think it’s a doable thing for everybody,” Patch said.
That available technology, according to Patch, includes paging systems allowing officers to immediately tap into voice mail messages, cell phones, and mobile databases in cruisers that could receive phone data.
“The technology is there so that the seven-digit calls can be answered, but answered by the departments that have (those seven-digit numbers),” Patch said.
PROBLEMS WITH THE PLAN
But opponents of Patch’s dispatching proposal said it represents a shift of expenses to the local level, would potentially deprive callers of the “live voice” they expect to hear when they phone for authorities, and could complicate things for officers on patrol.
“Imagine an officer in the middle or responding to a felony traffic stop with a gun pointed at a suspect and the phone goes off on his belt,” Gibbs said. “What does he do?”
Gibbs said Bristol police have received off-hour dispatching assistance from the VSP since the early 1970s. In the meantime, he said the state police and local departments have developed a “mishmash of different communications systems” that have difficulty interacting with one another.
The state would have been better served by regional dispatching centers with compatible communication systems for all emergency response agencies, according to Gibbs.
Gibbs believes that local departments are earning the VSP dispatching they are receiving. The Bristol Police Department last year generated more than $17,000 in traffic violation revenues for the state coffers, according to Gibbs. In addition, he said Bristol officers have assisted VSP troopers 56 times during the past 12 months.
“I would say we are doing our part to fund that dispatching center and we should get the service we deserve,” Gibbs said.
“Just because they overdid it, it’s not fair for them to say to us, ‘You’re on your own, pal,’” he added.
Bristol cannot afford to hire a dispatcher to pick up the slack if the VSP declines seven-digit, after-hours phone calls, Gibbs said. As a last resort, Gibbs said he may have to shift Bristol’s off-hours, 453-2533 calls into the VSP’s 388-4919 New Haven barracks number.
Vergennes police would be particularly affected by the dispatching change. The city department receives all of its dispatching through the VSP, and has for the past four years.
Vergennes Police Chief Mike Lowe said his officers may have to use pagers to retrieve the seven-digit calls that get patched into the department.
Lowe vowed to study what other rural departments do for their dispatching services. It will be critical to inform the public of whatever communications changes are made at that state and local level, according to Lowe.
“We will need to educate the public on when to use 911,” Lowe said. “Otherwise, they are probably going to start using it for less critical situations.”
If a minor accident is phoned into 911 instead of the Vergennes seven-digit number, “it’s going to take a while” for the call to be relayed, Lowe said.
Ultimately, Lowe said he and his colleagues would do whatever is needed to maintain Vergennes as a full-service police department.
“We have the pagers,” Lowe said. “If we have to do that, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley said he is reviewing options to respond to the potential loss of VSP dispatching for seven-digit calls. Hanley told selectmen last week the VSP dispatches for Middlebury for approximately 80 hours per week. Hanley said around 90 percent of calls that currently come into the department are on the seven-digit, 388-3191 line.
“To take over (80 hours of dispatching) ourselves, we would probably need two dispatchers,” said Hanley, who added he was not keen on having officers field calls on cell phones or pagers while they are responding to crime scenes.
Hanley said he believes people calling Middlebury’s seven-digit number “want a response,” as opposed to a recording.
Town officials said they will watch the situation closely, out of concern for public safety and the potential new expenses at the local level.
“How we come out of this is going to be an interesting exercise,” said Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger. “This is big.”