Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Too many police dispatch centers in San Mateo County, grand jury says

By Bonnie Eslinger - Palo Alto Daily News Staff Writer

Thirteen police dispatch centers serve communities throughout San Mateo County and that's just too many, according to a civil grand jury report released Tuesday that encourages cities to share staff for cost savings and efficiencies.

"There does not appear to be any substantial reasons why there shouldn't be or can't be consolidations," said grand jury foreman Bruce MacMillan.

Dispatchers in consolidated operations handle 911 calls at a cost that averages $11.59 less than those in centers serving only one city, according to the report. And because consolidated operations tend to be better staffed, they generally handle more emergencies and can take advantage of standardized training.

The report notes that when a PG&E gas line in San Bruno exploded and caused a fatal fire on Sept. 9, 2010, only one dispatcher was on duty at the city's police department to handle the large volume of 911 calls. Even after a person from the police department's records desk was assigned to assist, the two "were overwhelmed by the number of calls," according to the report. It took about 26 minutes before personnel from San Mateo County's dispatch center and others arrived and set up an emergency communications center at the scene.

Although all 22 of the county's cities once provided their own police dispatch service, that number has been reduced through consolidations to 13: Atherton, Belmont, Burlingame, Colma, Daly City, Foster City, Hillsborough,Menlo Park, San Bruno, San Mateo County, South San Francisco, Redwood City and San Mateo.

The eight that contract out for police dispatch service include Brisbane with San Mateo, Pacifica with South San Francisco, and the rest -- East Palo Alto, Half Moon Bay, Millbrae, Portola Valley, San Carlos and Woodside -- with the county.

When Pacifica contracted with South San Francisco in 2011, the cities cut their emergency service costs by $300,000 a year, according to the report. And while Brisbane told the civil grand jury it didn't save any money by contracting with San Mateo to handle its calls, it did receive expanded services for the money, including a modernized records management system.

As budgets have shrunk, city managers have been more open to the idea of sharing police dispatch services, but some told the grand jury there's some resistance from city council members reluctant to give up local control over the emergency service.

"Some cities may not send officers to a broken car window, while other cities that have a little less activity may choose to send an officer to that kind of event," MacMillan said. "One of the push-backs is, 'We need our own people because they understand what our policies are and can act accordingly.' "

Dispatchers, on the other hand, don't have a problem implementing separate protocols for different cities, he said. And cities with shared dispatch centers report no drop-off in service quality.

MacMillan said he hopes the report encourages city leaders to reconsider consolidating because "there could be some real money to be saved."

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