YOU HAVE AN EMERGENCY. You pick up the phone and dial 911. The person who answers is well trained and professional, asks all the right questions and gets you the help you need in the shortest time possible. Not many people in the midst of 911 call would stop to ask the dispatcher on the other end of the line: Wait a minute, who, exactly do you work for?
But that is the question that has come up among emergency responders in the county following the recent announcement by Roy Brown (R-Germantown), chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, that the board is considering whether to merge the county 911 emergency dispatch operation into the Sheriff’s Office. The goal is to save money, as much as $175,000, according to the Sheriff David Harrison. That’s a small part of the full $150-million county budget, but anything that saves money for taxpayers is welcome news. So why would anyone oppose it, especially if, as promised, no jobs will be lost?
Start with history. The Columbia 911/Emergency Communications office was established 17 years ago as an independent county agency. County leaders at the time chose that approach intentionally to address turf issues that still exist among the more than 40 separate agencies that respond to emergencies here.
One key principle keeps that complex system functioning smoothly: the “closest car” policy. Police, firefighters and rescue squad members know that depending on the type of emergency, the county 911 dispatchers will send the nearest appropriate responders to the scene without favoring one qualified agency over another. It leads to coordinated responses that save lives, and in theory the independence of the 911 system minimizes the rivalries between similar agencies.
Anyone who plans to tinker with this complex system had better be sure that all the parties are on board. But that doesn’t seem to be the case at this point. The State Police, some firefighters and the head of the 911 operation have challenged the wisdom of merging 911 into the Sheriff’s Office. On the surface that seems silly. The 911 dispatchers already work at the Sheriff’s headquarters, the county Public Safety Building in Greenport, and the Sheriff is an effective administrator as well as a savvy law enforcement professional.
Maybe the concerns expressed have more to do with how his successors might behave rather than that Sheriff Harrison would influence dispatchers to favor his department with more calls. Or they might reflect fears, expressed by some, that if the State Police perceive a bias in calls and believe they are receiving fewer calls from local dispatchers, they will reduce their presence in the county or pull out altogether.
Even those who dismiss such scenarios as absurd have to acknowledge that the mere mention of the merger has perturbed people who carry out functions vital to the safety of the county. And merger supporters have made their task more difficult by not anticipating the negative reaction to the concept, which hasn’t even become an actual proposal.
With the good news this week of yet another new business announcing plans to open in the county, Mr. Brown and the county leaders should use the opportunity to step back from this latest bright idea for a more efficient and less costly county government and think again whether to proceed with it right now.
Some of the changes afoot in the administration of the county show great promise, particularly the new effort to coordinate and consolidate the county’s computer systems. Other proposals, like the plan to buy the old Walmart building in Greenport and move much of county government there, sound sketchy at best. It feels sometimes like the board is reinventing the county on the fly.
This 911 merger idea has gotten off to a rocky start and its future in the short term looks cloudy. Also, it arrives at the start of a county election campaign, when partisan debate will make it even more difficult to build a consensus for a significant shift in county operations.
I don’t know whether the merger of the 911 operation with the Sheriff’s Office will yield improvements or generate unanticipated and unwelcome complications. But I take very seriously the concerns of the State Police, firefighters and others who remain deeply skeptical about it. Is that just bureaucrats protecting their territory? Maybe, except that those same bureaucrats protect our lives every day. We ignore them at our peril.