City, county to explore combined dispatch center
SPRINGFIELD, Feb 24, 2013 (Springfield News-Sun - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
The city's acquisition of the former Downs Army Reserve Center could spark talks for a countywide emergency dispatch center that supporters believe would reduce spending and increase public safety.
City and county leaders said they are open to the possibility of pooling their resources at the former U.S. Army Reserves military complex at 1515 W. High St.
"We're always open to that," said Mayor Warren Copeland said.
Despite no formal talks yet, Clark County Commissioner Rick Lohnes and Sheriff Gene Kelly said they are open to discussing a countywide communications center, something created in recent years in neighboring Champaign, Greene and Montgomery counties.
"I'm certainly open to anything to improve service in any way to save costs, work better together and not duplicate services," Kelly said.
City and county leaders have discussed the possibility of a countywide dispatch center over the years, but the idea ended as the city waited to take ownership of the Downs Center.
The city will spend approximately $1.1 million on its communications operation this year, which includes 17 employees located at Station 1, 350 N. Fountain Ave. The county will spend approximately $1.2 million this year on its dispatch operation at the downtown police and sheriff's headquarters. The county dispatch includes 24 employees.
After six years, the city finally acquired the Downs building for $34,600, which was needed to reimburse the federal government for an environmental study and closing costs. City manager Jim Bodenmiller wouldn't estimate a value for the building but said it would be worth substantially more than their purchase price if it was appraised on the private market.
"It's a very secure building, and it's in excellent condition," Bodenmiller said. "A lot of different things have been discussed (for use), but we've never gotten to explore them fully because we didn't know if we were going to get the facility."
Initially, the city would like to move its dispatch operation to the Downs Center. Officials also discussed using the facility as a fire training center, but Bodenmiller said it could be used for all types of city government projects.
Both Bodenmiller and Copeland said the city's dispatch center needs more space than what they currently have at Station 1.
"We prefer (dispatch) to be a standalone facility, and it gives them a lot of space," Bodenmiller said.
Springfield Fire Rescue Division Chief Nick Heimlich said there are several advantages for placing the communications center at the former Downs complex, including space and security.
"It has a variety of elements to it that are things you would look for if you were looking to buy one, or would include in construction diagrams or plans if you were going to build a structure for a communications center," Heimlich said.
A countywide communications center would allow for better communication for all local jurisdictions, including city fire, police, sheriff and township fire and EMS departments, Heimlich and Kelly both said.
"Even if they were separately operated, there would still be a more immediate and proximal communication connection," Heimlich said.
Kelly said operations would improve if all jurisdictions were on the same frequency.
Also, 911 calls go to different locations based on where callers are located and what type of phone they're using, Kelly said, and that can lead to delays in response times as calls are transferred.
Many details for a unified dispatch center would need to be ironed out, including operating procedures.
"You have to meld more than the organizational structure," Heimlich said.
"It's not something you can do overnight," Kelly said.
Champaign County officials opened a countywide dispatch system in 2006. Prior to the dispatch center's opening, calls in the county were routed to either the Urbana Police Division, the Urbana Fire Division or the Champaign County Sheriff's Office.
Overall, the combined dispatch center has led to more efficiency and more cooperation between area agencies, said Steve Hess, Champaign County commissioner.
"We thought it was a big step forward, and it's turned out better than we thought," Hess said.
While the center has been successful, it could not have been accomplished without cooperation from several agencies.
"It took a sheriff and a city and a county willing to do it, or it wouldn't have worked," said Bob Corbett, Champaign County commissioner.
Still, the center in Champaign County is facing issues of its own.
Voters approved a 1-mill permanent levy in 2005 to pay for the service. It was expected to generate about $715,000 annually, but so far has never generated that amount.
In the fall, voters rejected a 0.5-mill levy that would have generated about $350,000 in additional funding to the 911 center. County officials have not yet decided whether to seek a similar levy again this year.
In Clark County, city and county officials see potential for a combined center to both reduce costs and improve public safety.
"Every form of government has to look at cost-effective ways to improve service," Kelly said.
Copeland called the Downs Center "a good resource for the community."
"In the long run, we clearly need a more workable place for our dispatching, so that's one real possibility for that building," Copeland said. "It's good to finally have it and get it for a reasonable price."
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