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Pierce County’s hydra-headed 911 ‘system’ needs a pruning

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on June 29, 2009 at 7:34 pm with No Comments »
June 29, 2009 7:34 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

If you were starting from scratch designing a 911 system for Pierce County, you’d never get the system the county is saddled with.

To devote every possible dollar to fast action on emergency calls, any needless duplication of overhead costs would be ruthlessly cut. Not a penny would be spent perpetuating local fiefdoms that actually hurt the efficiency of the overall system.

In Pierce County, however, piecemeal decisions over the years have produced five "primary call centers" – Puyallup, Sumner, Buckley, Fife and the giant Law Enforcement Support Agency. LESA – which is already strained and facing further budget cuts – handles the police calls from about 90 percent of the county.

Even that understates the duplication. Because LESA doesn’t handle fire and emergency medical dispatching, any calls for those emergency services are transferred elsewhere. The Tacoma Fire Department, for example, is a "secondary" center that handles that city’s fire and EMS calls. According to a recent performance audit, the TFC does so at much higher cost than LESA – $31.61 per call as opposed to $11.10.

That’s $31.61 in addition to $11.10 for any calls that first go to LESA.

Then there are the costs and delays arising from transfers of misdirected 911 calls – which are inevitable with such a bewildering welter of agencies.

Two recent proposals would consolidate these fiefdoms and maximize the funding for the actual handling of emergency calls.

The performance audit – done by Texas-based 9-1-1 SME Consulting – recommended a single call center for the entire county. All available funding would be pooled and and focused on the mission, without duplication.

That would be the logical starting-from-scratch option. It’s the norm elsewhere in the state. Some argue that only fire departments should handle fire and EMS calls. But other counties seem to get along fine with combined centers, and at lower cost.

A task force of emergency services officials has also studied the system’s problems. It has offered a different solution: twin call centers, one for law enforcement, the other for fire. There’d be some duplication and unnecessary call transfers, but this would still be a big improvement on the hydra-headed beast Pierce County has now.

The best argument against consolidation is that LESA’s response times are too slow. That’s true, but LESA has been limping along for years with too few people and too little money. If funding weren’t being squandered on duplication, many emergencies would get faster responses. Response time – not turf protection – ought to be the bottom line for all 911 calls.

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