Franklin County is taking a hopeful step to merge its 911 dispatch operations with the Richland-managed operation that fields 911 calls on the Benton side of the Columbia River.
Last week, Franklin County commissioners unanimously agreed to hire consultant Steve Reinke of Thorp-based Reinke & Associates to help with the consolidation of the county’s dispatch center with the Southeast Communications Center or SECOMM.
His mission is to develop a “reasonable, fair and equitable” proposal for Franklin County to become a full partner in SECOMM. Reinke will be paid $150 an hour up to $50,000.
The move comes more than a month after Franklin officials formally asked to negotiate terms to enter the system as a full partner. SECOMM responded by inviting Franklin to join as a fee-paying subscriber, noting it would be faster than negotiating a full partnership.
Franklin County leaders say they are unwilling to shut down their dispatch center unless they enter SECOMM as full voting partners.
In a March 22 letter signed by County Commissioner Brad Peck, Sheriff Jim Raymond and Pasco City Manager Dave Zabell, the leaders said they’re prepared to make a financial contribution that reflects the existing investment in SECOMM’s dispatch operation.
Closing our dispatch facility and subscribing to SECOMM without significant clarity on the important topics of timing, terms and conditions for full membership would create undue risk for all concerned.
Letter from Franklin County, Pasco officials
The leaders say they want a full vote in decisions affecting dispatch operations, which they would get in a full partnership.
“Closing our dispatch facility and subscribing to SECOMM without significant clarity on the important topics of timing, terms and conditions for full membership would create undue risk for all concerned,” they wrote in a letter addressed to Richland City Manager Cindy Reents, chair of Benton County Emergency Services, the umbrella organization for SECOMM.
Reents said SECOMM stands ready to welcome Franklin County as a subscriber. SECOMM has no history of bringing in new partners and can’t say what financial contribution or process would be necessary.
SECOMM is an independent agency owned by Benton County and the cities of Richland and Kennewick. Smaller cities such as West Richland are subscribers rather than owners.
Franklin County Sheriff Jim Raymond said the subscriber approach would leave Franklin County vulnerable because it would have to disband its own operations without the security of a permanent place. He likened it to renting versus owning.
Reents said Franklin County could enter as subscribers with no risk to future operations with a properly negotiated interlocal agreement.
“We’re committed to finding a resolution,” she said.
Combining the two dispatch operations is a long-held dream of emergency responders on both sides of the Columbia River. The goal has been elusive since 2015 when hoped-for state funding fell though, leaving supporters looking for a different way to consolidate operations.
Franklin County will pay Steve Reinke of Thorp-based Reinke & Associates $150 an hour up to $50,000 to facilitate the consolidation of Benton and Franklin 911 dispatch operations.
Reents said the decade-long conversation has already addressed a major problem identified early in the consolidation talks. Incompatible radio systems sometimes prevented police officers from communicating in emergencies.
Franklin County received a $623,000 federal grant to equip its sheriff’s department and other agencies with 800 MHz radios, ensuring all Tri-City law enforcement are now on the same frequency.
That’s evidence that the system is working better already, even if consolidation has yet to occur, Reents said.
Franklin officials say consolidation is being driven in part by increasing reliance on mobile phones. Having dispatch centers is such close proximity means some calls are misrouted to the wrong dispatch center and have to be transferred to landlines, causing delays.
By one estimate, as many as 5,000 calls per year go astray. Dispatchers must transfer them to the correct center over landlines, sometimes dropping them altogether.