Cost-Effective Communications: Getting the Most for Your Emergency Dispatch Dollars

Jan. 1, 2009
Barry Furey reports that amid federal mandates on wideband service and demands for new technology such as next-generation 911, a conflict looms between rising demands and shrinking budgets.
Getting the Most for Your Emergency Dispatch Dollars

There is an old saying that, "talk is cheap." However, just as communications makes up a measurable part of a community's fire service rating, so too does the cost of maintaining an adequate emergency communications system make up an increasingly greater part of many fire department budgets.

With trunked radios priced at over two grand apiece, federal mandates to replace older wideband units, and demands for new technology such as next-generation 911 on the horizon, a conflict looms between rising demands and shrinking budgets. So, how can the incident commander best develop strategies and tactics to manage this emergency? Let's begin the size-up.

As with any plan, a good place to start is by first identifying what not to do. Just as sticking a nozzle in the first opening showing fire can be considered a rookie mistake, it can also be a grave error to immediately attack your most visible cost - personnel. We all are cognizant of the negative impacts of reducing truck and engine staffing. Downsizing your dispatch center can have similar effects. Programs such as Emergency Medical Dispatch and Emergency Fire Dispatch (EMD and EFD) prolong the time that telecommunicators spend on the telephone with callers due to their interactive nature. Wireless calls require additional time to properly locate, and non-English-speaking callers require time-consuming translation services. Depending on your workflow, cutting people out of this process can increase your call-answering times, reduce the monitoring of critical fireground frequencies - or both.

There are also real-world differences between suppression and support forces. Communications personnel do not have a rapid intervention team standing by in case a call goes bad. They also don't have a second alarm to call if more help is needed to get the job done. While the current budget crunch may cause some communities to make extremely difficult decisions, reducing your telecommunicator staffing can materially affect both citizen and firefighter safety and should be considered only as a last resort.

Another item that is often a visible target is training, especially since it is frequently listed with travel in the budgetary hierarchy. The city fathers are frequently focused on this line item, and we often cooperate due to government-wide mandates to cut back and cut out, or accede to less-direct forms of pressure. The bottom line here is, do you want to put your life in the hands of untrained people? Every dollar spent on fire suppression that is not supported by a properly trained and equipped telecommunications staff doesn't buy you a dollar's worth of benefit.

For the safety of all concerned, minimum educational standards must be met. Try looking at alternative ways of getting training such as self-paced electronic self instruction. Use teleconferencing as a substitute for face-to-face meetings requiring travel. Subscribe to webinars that let unlimited users participate for a flat fee. But, also remember that specialized training is sometimes available only at a manufacturer's facility, and that conferences and trade shows often offer cost-effective means of learning through the diversity of sessions presented as well as the networking opportunities provided. The key phrase: do better, don't do away.

Now that we've spent some time looking at what not to do, it's time to focus on actions that will bring us positive results. Most of these fall under the single category of being a smarter shopper. Some of the same strategies and tactics used to manage our personal finances can be brought to play in controlling this crisis as well. A good place to begin is by reviewing all of your bills and making sure that you are only being charged for goods and services that you're being provided. I'm sure most of us look over our MasterCard and Visa statements for incorrect items before we sign the check. Municipal billing can also contain errors, and many of these can be for some high-ticket items.

Communications center invoices can be especially problematic because they tend to enumerate technical items, part or assembly numbers, and circuits. Telephone companies have historically kept records in a manner that many of their own employees have difficulty understanding, making it almost impossible for anyone else to decipher. Things to look for here are charges against office equipment like copiers and printers that you may no longer have (or never had), discontinued telephone numbers and alarm and radio lines, and billing at an improper rate. During my career, I've discovered all of these, and more. Don't get your hopes up too high, though, because it's not an epidemic and won't result in 50% savings. But, correcting billing errors allows you to cut costs without cutting out any services, which is definitely a plus.

While the concept of mutual aid is normally reserved for fire suppression forces, the purchasing power of buying in bulk has always been recognized. Cooperative efforts can gain big results and run the gamut from everyday items to system infrastructure. The federal government and some states already benefit from the use of contract bidding. A wide variety of items are typically available, and many agencies are allowed by statute to buy direct from these vendor lists. The prices are often good, and the time and expense of preparing a local bid are saved. However, as in the case of so-called consumer discount clubs and manufacturers' outlet stores, everything you need may not be available. More importantly, everything available may not necessarily be a bargain.

If you think that you can get it cheaper locally, ask around and find out whether neighboring departments are in the market for the same commodities. If so, this can often lead to cooperative contracts that are truly win-win situations. But the benefits of sharing become even more pronounced when applied to larger projects. Whether or not consolidated dispatch centers save money can be debated endlessly, but from a personnel standpoint, often they do not. However, it is typically cheaper to build one large facility than it is to build several smaller ones. When land acquisition, site development, and provision of special features such as fire protection, security and emergency power are considered, the scales are clearly tipped.

For those not quite ready to take this plunge, the sharing of communications systems can work as an alternate approach. It obviously makes sense to be able to talk to your neighbor. Using common channels and sharing physical resources such as tower sites can reduce costs while increasing coverage. A network designed to let neighboring dispatch centers serve as backups for each other during emergencies can also lower the price of providing needed redundancies.

Future radio purchases should also focus on devices that are truly interoperable and do not rely on vendor-specific software or proprietary technology. This will increase competition, and hopefully result in more cost-effective solutions and a wider array of solutions from which to choose. The acquisition of new or replacement goods provides a broad avenue for expenditure management.

Consider long-term costs. Computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems are expected to operate for years. When specifying like items, be sure to obtain long-range maintenance and upgrade costs in order to get a true comparison of competing products. Similarly, review your current maintenance figures for all existing equipment. Going to a time-and-materials mode can sometimes be more beneficial than paying steep monthly charges.

Look to buy systems that can expand modularly. Make sure that you consider both current and projected needs when purchasing. Is that new digital recorder already at maximum capacity? If so, what does it take to add another telephone or radio channel? Again, vendors do not all use the same solution. What seems like a bargain today may not seem like one next year when significant hardware purchases have to be made in order to keep up with growth.

Fire service executives must also be ready to scale down communications projects when sufficient funding cannot be had. Look hard and long at your options. All too often, dead spots in radio systems are blamed on poor technology, when further review reveals that a repeater site or sites were deleted from the original design as a cost-saving measure. When making a major investment, ask for a variety of financing options. Lease, lease purchase and outright purchase all have their pluses and minuses. Try to find an arrangement that best fits your current fiscal situation. In addition, search for grants. What someone else is willing to pay for, you don't have to. Good financing may reduce or even eliminate the need to cut features or equipment.

Finally, make the most of technology and the current economy. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone service typically provides long-distance calling as part of the flat monthly rate. Is this something that could benefit you? Look for alternate sources for goods and services. Don't always assume that traditional vendors are the best and only choice, although major manufacturers also offer occasional incentives and sales.

Because of the role provided by emergency communications, services cannot be indiscriminately eliminated or reduced. Some communities may also have statutory responsibilities than cannot be ignored. However, current economic realities demand that every aspect of municipal budgets be reviewed for efficiency. While "talk" may not be cheap, following some of the suggestions above may at least cause it to be affordable.

BARRY FUREY, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is director of the Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center in North Carolina. During his 35-year public safety career, he has managed 911 centers and served as a volunteer fire officer in three other states. In 2002, Furey chaired the Association of Public-safety Communications Officials (APCO) International conference in Nashville, TN, and in 2005 he received an APCO life membership for his continued work in emergency communications.

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!