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Should one dispatch center serve Anchorage's first responders?

Sean Doogan
A plan to combine the city's police and fire dispatch centers could save the Municipality of Anchorage money, but it could be difficult to implement. A new report has five options for officials to consider. Loren Holmes photo

A public safety study, commissioned by the Municipality of Anchorage, will soon be released to city officials and Anchorage Assembly members. The study by the California-based Matrix Consulting Group looked into the prospect of combining the police and fire dispatch systems. Currently the Anchorage Police and Fire Departments maintain their own dispatch centers, computer-laden offices where operators receive information from the 911 system and then send out emergency responders.

The current Computer Assisted Dispatch (CAD) software contracts for APD and AFD will expire in a year. The contract for the enhanced-911 system ends in 2015. All three systems will need to be replaced with upgraded software. The new 911 system will need to be able to handle video and texts, according to APD.

“We have been talking about this for some time,” said Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew. “With the contracts for the CAD software ending soon, it seemed like a good time to look into a possible merging of the two (APD and AFD) dispatch systems,” Mew said. “If you could snap your fingers and get to the point where it’s all finished, it probably makes some sense to do that.”  

The combination could save the city money, but the transition may prove to be a challenge.

APD dispatchers are located at police headquarters on Elmore Road. The dispatch center is staffed with eight to 11 dispatchers at any one time. Most take calls directly from the e-911 system, and then decide where the information should go: to police, the fire department or both. From there, police dispatchers radio for emergency personnel to respond to police emergencies.

For fire calls, the information is relayed a few miles across town to the fire department dispatch center on Homer Drive. Each works with its own CAD software. The fire department operates on a system called Tritech. APD uses Tiburon. But the two don’t operate using the same information, which means some of the data taken by APD call-takers must be re-entered into the fire department system by their dispatchers.

Can a new CAD system handle police and fire department needs simultaneously?  And would each department have to maintain its own record-keeping software -- usually automatically tied into the dispatch programming?

Combining the two dispatch centers, however, would lead to a loss of redundancy. “The 911 system can never, ever go down. That is unacceptable,” said Mew.

In addition to its dispatch centers, the municipality maintains an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) – to be used when natural disasters or other large-scale disruptions of public activity happen -- on E Street near Downtown. It has its own dispatch facility and is used for APD and AFD training. It also serves as a backup to both departments dispatch facilities. Should one fail, dispatchers would go to the Emergency Operations Center and resume call-taking. But that takes about 20-30 minutes.

If the police dispatch center were to go offline, Alaska Communications (ACS), which maintains the main hub for the city’s e-911 system, would route calls to the fire department. APD would send a officer to the fire department's center to work from there until the EOC could be brought on-line.

It happened once. Mew said that in the early 2000s, a heater motor at APD’s dispatch center overheated, melting some wires and setting off the station’s fire suppression system. Dispatchers were moved to the EOC for a few days while crews worked to clean up the mess. 

If call centers for APD and AFD combine, both departments lose the ability to dispatch crews during the time it would take to get the EOC up and running.

“We would have to have a backup plan, another place where we could temporarily take and then dispatch calls,” said Mew.

Mew said the report contains five different scenarios for the city’s emergency dispatch centers -- the least transformative of which would maintain both centers as they now operate, only with newer software. The most comprehensive change detailed in the report would combine APD and AFD’s dispatch centers into one location, with workers taking calls for both departments.

“That’s something we need to figure out,” said Mew. “If we do combine, how extensive should that be? Should we share a building? Should we have designated APD and AFD dispatchers? Or should they work for both departments?”

The report is being sent to Assembly members, who are working on the budget for next year. Any changes to the way the municipality’s police and fire departments operate would need to be reflected in that budget -- which is due to be finalized on Nov. 19.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean@alaskadispatch.com