At a special meeting on March 23, North Branford's Town Council will hear from stakeholders to help determine if the town's emergency dispatch services should leave the police station and instead operate out of Branford's state-of-the-art center in the future; or stay in town and respond to growing needs by increasing staff and upgrading equipment.
"My interpretation is they want to have a special meeting to focus exclusively on this issue, and want to hear from the stakeholders involved," Town Manager Michael Paulhus told Zip06/The Sound. "I think they want to know more, and get some assurances on how much we're talking about."
Although the March 23 meeting is not a public hearing, the council is anticipating a crowd of citizens who want to learn more. The meeting will convene at North Branford Intermediate School in the cafeteria at 7 p.m. on Thurs. March 23. The school is located at 654 Foxon Road.
On March 18, Paulhus told Zip06/The Sound he was still finalizing the special meeting agenda with the Town Council. He said he will invite "stakeholder" representatives to address the council from North Branford's Police and Fire Departments, Police and Fire Commissions, Public Safety Communications Committee, Branford Police, the state Dept. of Public Safety, CT Division of Statewide Emergency Telecommunications, the dispatchers' union AFSCME Local 1303 and the dispatchers themselves, or a spokesperson.
The town's current dispatch personnel includes four full-time dispatchers and one part-time dispatcher. To address a growing number of calls and equipment upgrade needs, the idea to move the town's 911 operation center to Branford has been under exploration by North Branford's Public Safety Communications Committee since 2016.
"There's a general consensus having one full time dispatcher is problematic, and they're looking at ways which they can improve that operation," Paulhus told said. "Does that mean adding staff? Right now, it takes four full-time and one part-time one person in the seat 24/7. Whatever they want to do to increase that costs money. So there are no cost savings; and the least cost alternative happens to be going to Branford."
In his March 17 weekly report to the Town Council, Paulhus noted that the question of the future of the dispatch center has also raised the question on "who has the authority on deciding the future of operations." Paulhus has addressed the question to Town Attorney Pat Young for a written opinion of the matter. The Communications Center provides service for police, fire, ambulance, public works and the receiver of all E 9-1-1 calls. By Town Charter, the Public Safety Communications Committee consists of a chairperson, the Police Chief, the Fire Chief, and six additional members (two each from police and fire departments, and two from the public at large) appointed by the Mayor with the approval of the Town Council. The charter states the "committee shall work to review, examine and discuss safety communications in the Town of North Branford; hear, investigate and review all issues from citizens about safety communication matters; advise the Town Manager on policy, procedures and technology related to the emergency dispatch center; and develop plans to be submitted to the Mayor and Town Council for enhancing safety communication in the case of disaster or emergency, and for preserving the peace, mitigating the results and rendering aid as a result thereof." However the charter also states the town's Police Commission "...shall have general management and supervision of the Police Department of the town and of the property and equipment used in connection therewith," and the dispatch center is located in the police station. The charter also describes dispatchers as "members" of the police department (while dispatchers are trained emergency communications personnel, they are not police officers).
Now, as the town's annual budget workshops ramp up, the possibility of closing the center in the police station at 260 Forest Road is rapidly becoming North Branford's hot button issue. However, Paulhus noted any changes to the town's current dispatch program are not tied to next year's budget as a deadline for a decision. The proposed 2017-18 Public Safety Communications budget currently reflects the status quo, with no cuts.
"The number in the [proposed 2017-18] annual budget is for the operation of the regular dispatch center," said Paulhus.
The current 2016-17 Town Budget (page 65, Public Safety Communications) sets dispatch center costs at North Branford Police Department at $562,073. The breakout of expenses includes Personnel Services at $433,404; Materials and Supplies at $3,397 and Contractual Services at $125,272.
During budget workshops, the Town Council, which is also the town's Finance Board, is tasked with deciding final cuts and any added costs before sending a proposed final budget out for a referendum question vote in May. The town's new budget needs to be adopted for the start of the fiscal year on July 1.
Should the council decide to consider and add dispatch center changes into the 2017-18 budget to begin in the next fiscal year, the March 23 special meeting would provide "...a place to start from," said Paulhus.
"It depends on where they go, and how much information they get Thursday night. No decisions have been made," said Paulhus.
To keep the dispatch center in town, current estimates put increased costs at approximately $500,000 to double staff (personnel services); with more costs, not yet estimated, to upgrade the current communications center.
"So it's two issues, the personal issue and then there's the aging infrastructure in terms of telecommunications," said Paulhus.
If the town were to take advantage of state "multi-town dispatch" grant funding to defray costs to transfer staff and operations to Branford, increased costs would add up to an estimated $65,000.
The Branford center underwent a complete system upgrade in 2013, followed in 2016 with the installation of a new Priority Dispatch Service to increase facilitation of all routine, medical, fire and police calls. The last upgrade to North Branford's communications center was a small one involving furnishings, Paulhus said.
As previously reported, North Branford's dispatchers union is concerned a town decision is eminent (see the story here). The union argues moving North Branford's dispatchers to Branford would potentially leave North Branford's police station's administrative offices "dark" on weekends, as well as after regular office hours end at 4:30 p.m. daily. Currently, once regular police administrative staff leave the building, a dispatcher on duty remains on site. The union says having a dispatcher at the desk around the clock provides a public contact for those who come to the station at times when officers on duty may be away from the building.
"I understand the dispatchers," said Paulhus. "They do a great job, but the fact remains they're one person [per shift]. That can't be disputed. They're great with the resources they have and dedicated professionals. But in larger scope of town services, can we improve, and how can we go about getting additional dispatchers?"