Troopers say no to Mat-Su dispatch consolidation

zhollander@adn.comSeptember 10, 2013 

— The Mat-Su Borough and its cities are moving ahead with plans to consolidate emergency dispatch centers -- but without the Alaska State Troopers who currently pay about half the boroughwide dispatch costs.

The troopers, meanwhile, plan to build their own regional center, although there's no timeline to do that yet.

"You're saying, 'This is crazy. You don't want this and you don't have an alternative?' " Major Matt Leveque, the troopers' deputy director, told a meeting of borough and city officials last week. "And yes, that's correct."

A borough consultant is recommending the Valley's two emergency dispatch centers merge into one. A similar move has been suggested in Anchorage.

The consultant, ADCOMM Engineering Company based in Bothell, Wash. got roughly $62,680 to prepare a 203-page report on consolidation.

Right now, a total of 12 dispatch positions are split between a center in Palmer and a larger one in Wasilla called MATCOM. Several emergency dispatchers at Palmer's police station field calls for Palmer and Houston and borough-wide fire and rescue services. MATCOM handles calls for Wasilla police and Alaska State Troopers throughout the Mat-Su, an area nearly the size of Ireland.

The situation breeds potentially deadly problems, ADCOMM officials told officials at the Thursday meeting. That includes callers forced to repeat requests for help to different call-takers and dispatchers who can't see computer log entries from dispatchers at the other location.

ADCOMM principal Joe Blaschka Jr. made his point with an imaginary but all-too-real scenario: a female domestic violence victim in a remote area near Talkeetna calls 911. The call automatically goes first to Palmer. The woman tells a dispatcher she's not injured but her husband has access to weapons. Palmer doesn't dispatch police to Talkeetna; that's trooper territory.

The caller gets transferred to MATCOM. She has to tell her story again. If at some point she realizes she's injured, she gets transferred again, back to Palmer.

Meanwhile, Palmer dispatchers can't access MATCOM's computer updates about when troopers are scheduled to arrive at the house, so they can't send an ambulance in.

"This sort of back and forth between centers wouldn't happen if there was just one center," Blaschka said.

The move wouldn't necessarily save any money, ADCOMM's Dave Magnenat said. It might even cost more than the $3.5 million spent on boroughwide dispatch services in 2012, though it's hard to accurately assess costs now because of the duplication of efforts.

The gain is in service to the public and to responders, to people who won't have to repeat their emergencies just because they live in Wasilla and are patched in to Palmer, Magnenat said.

"If you're looking to save money by consolidating, we would not recommend that be the approach you take," he said.

ADCOMM recommends increasing dispatcher numbers from 12 to 33, including more supervisors and round-the-clock staffing. It recommends finding a building to house them all. It recommends streamlining the two different computer-aided dispatch systems used into one universal system. If the governments decide against consolidation, they should at least choose one CAD system to use instead of two.

Local officials are already moving ahead on one ADCOMM recommendation to create a nonprofit corporation to operate the center using a board made up of representatives from each government to take some of the politics out of the operation.

When it comes to funding, the consultant recommended increasing the E911 monthly phone surcharge from $1 to the $2 cap allowable under state law. That won't pay for everything, however. All the stakeholders involved will have to work out a way to share the burden, officials say.

The troopers, at this point, are no longer considered a stakeholder, borough officials said Monday.

Leveque last week described the relationships troopers have with Wasilla and Kenai Peninsula call centers as "challenging at a minimum" in part because of the troopers' statewide responsibilities. He also said no state agency has ever successfully maintained a role in a regional dispatch center.

"When I've got a plane crash, and a trooper's on a sat phone outside this borough, I have to send them to Fairbanks," Leveque said during a break in the meeting.

For about a year in 2003, the troopers ran their own dispatch center at Fort Richardson, but state officials opted out of that arrangement and the troopers contracted with MATCOM. It's not yet clear what form the future troopers dispatch centers will take, only that the troopers are looking for something different.

"They want to concentrate on borough services," troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said Monday. "We need something broader."

Former emergency dispatcher Becka Lopez told the group she strongly supported consolidation.

"Every delay you have in getting that caller on the line can cost them their life," said Lopez, who spent eight years at MATCOM and nearly four in Bethel. "When you're talking about money, when you're talking about quantifying, you can't because you can't quantify those lives saved. You can't quantify those officers who weren't shot because I got the information they needed."

Elected officials weren't so sure. Several expressed concerns about increasing dispatch costs during Thursday's meeting. Another concern: what happens without the troopers?

But a number of officials also noted the borough's growing population and the need to make sure emergency dispatch keeps up with more calls for help.

"We don't live in Mayberry any more," Mat-Su Assembly member Steve Colligan said. "We're a growingv community."

Next, stakeholders will form a committee to start work on unifying the computer-aided dispatch system and creating a nonprofit corporation that could be eligible for public employee retirement benefits, according to Dennis Brodigan, the borough's emergency services director. "We're going to continue on the path of moving forward without the Alaska State Troopers," Brodigan said.

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.

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