Tallahassee Democrat.com

Police chief pitches 911 plan
McNeil says he can best sheriff on price
By Todd Wright

The example was almost an aside to the discussion, but the map displayed a powerful message.

In March, it took almost 10 minutes before a Tallahassee fire engine carrying medical technicians was dispatched to help with an emergency call for a heart-attack victim. The fire station was literally around the corner from the call.

Police Chief Walt McNeil used that and 24 other examples of delayed response times to emergency calls Wednesday as a reason why his department should house a new joint-dispatch communications center that would handle all fire, police and emergency medical-service calls in Leon County.

And he could do it for a fraction of the cost of his competitor - the Leon County Sheriff's Office.

"It's really not that hard. Our facility is designed to handle multiple agencies," McNeil said. "The urgent issue is the effective, efficient and coordinated EMS responses."

The discussion of consolidating 911 dispatch has heated up over the past year as the competing sides have made their pitches to run the service. Before the issue resurfaced in 2003, the debate had been bogged down as conflicts over who should run and fund a joint-dispatch operation made the idea a political issue.

Sheriff Larry Campbell was at the City Commission meeting but didn't speak. In the past, he has supported consolidation of law enforcement in the city and county - including 911 - under the control of the sheriff.

The City Commission appointed Debbie Lightsey as its liaison to the county to work on the issue and voted not to attend a joint workshop with county commissioners next week.

In March, during a workshop city commissioners did not attend, county commissioners voted to take the issue to voters through a local referendum if the issue was not resolved by May 31.

Currently, the Police Department dispatches police officers and firefighters to emergencies and the Sheriff's Office dispatches deputies and ambulance personnel.

The Sheriff's Office paid RCC Consultants $45,000 for a report last year, which recommends merging the dispatch offices as soon as possible into a new facility, estimated to cost between $7.5 million and $9 million.

McNeil said the Police Department could run all dispatches for about $350,000 by simply changing the layout in the call center to accommodate the county's personnel.

City commissioners agreed with the idea of one dispatch center but seemed cautious, if not unwilling, to endorse the Police Department as the solution.

"If what we've got is two systems capable of handling this, then we have spent more money than we have needed to and got a worse system for it," City Commissioner Allan Katz said. "What we've done has created an unsafe situation in the community."

RCC Consultants and McNeil agree that a joint dispatch center also would eliminate unnecessary delays in the dispatch of emergency vehicles, which had the most appeal to city commissioners.

With the current setup, an emergency call can be touched by as many as five dispatchers from the county and city before a fire engine or police officer is dispatched. That can result in significant delays in getting to a victim in a car accident or someone having a life-threatening health problem.

In April, the dispatch of firefighters to emergency calls was delayed anywhere from one to six minutes in 530 calls for medical assistance, McNeil said.

Under his plan, the appropriate agencies would be dispatched simultaneously from one center.

"Seconds and minutes can be the difference between life and death," he said. "That type of delay should not be happening in this community."