Agencies mull costs for merging 911 centers

Although most law enforcement agencies agree consolidating emergency dispatch centers in Benton and Franklin counties would provide better service, creating that bicounty organization may come down to dollars.

A shared system likely would mean the majority of local governments would pay more for dispatch and record services, although some other costs, including maintenance and software upgrades, would decrease, according to a consultant's report.

With the proposed Multi-Agency Three Rivers Information and Communications Services, or MATRICS, the two current dispatch centers would operate as a single system, although dispatchers would work from two facilities, said Ernest Pages with e-Gov Consulting of Fairview, Texas.

Pages laid out the structure and preliminary cost estimates for representatives from the bicounty agencies Wednesday. The proposal resulted from a study paid for by a grant.

Right now, Franklin County dispatch, SECOMM, also known as Southeast Communications Center, and BIPIN, known as the Bicounty Police Information Network, provide communications and records management for public safety services in the two counties and the cities.

Although the three systems use the same software provider, they lack "interoperability," according to the consultant's analysis.

Franklin County Commissioner Rick Miller said he feels uniting the systems would allow first responders to get to incidents faster and improve service for citizens.

But, he said, "It comes back to the cost."

MATRICS would cost an estimated $6.5 million, about $10,000 less than what agencies collectively paid in 2010, according to the report.

But for Franklin County, services would cost about $33,000 more, or about $288,000, according to the consultant's report.

Only Benton County, Kennewick, Richland and West Richland would see cost savings.

Pasco's increase would be the highest -- about $140,000. The cost estimates are based on which MATRICS services the agencies likely would use.

But Pasco City Manager Gary Crutchfield said Pasco may be willing to pay an increased cost to receive the better service that an integrated system would provide.

Pasco's costs with Franklin County dispatch have increased each year, and the contract for those services expired a few years ago without the city and county agreeing to a new contract.

Calls from cellphones don't always go to the dispatch center that covers where the person is calling from. That means transferring calls, which can add time and lead to dropped calls, Crutchfield said.

In one case, Pasco fire Chief Bob Gear said it took seven minutes to dispatch a crew to a Pasco house fire because the caller, who spoke Spanish, first was sent to SECOMM, where dispatchers had to find a translator. The caller was then sent to Franklin County's dispatch center, where dispatchers had to again find a translator.

"We've been throwing Band-Aids at a shotgun wound for a while now," Gear said.

An integrated system also would allow Pasco police to communicate directly with Kennewick and Richland officers without having to go through dispatch, Crutchfield said.

The decision to move forward rests with Benton and Franklin county commissioners, Crutchfield said. According to the consultant's report, both would need to be part of the new organization for the integrated system to work.

Benton County Commissioner Shon Small said MATRICS is a promising concept. But it will take officials time to digest the details, look at long-term costs and get to the point where a decision can be made.

Such a system would help law enforcement agencies work together on a larger scale than they already do, he said.

"I want to make sure that the citizens in Benton and Franklin counties will get the best service possible for the lowest amount of dollars," Small said.

County commissioners will hold a bicounty meeting to discuss the proposal. Small said he hopes to see that happen in the next month or so.

Pages suggested that both counties, Richland, Kennewick and Pasco create the organization.

Other cities and fire districts could join as voting members on an executive committee by paying a buy-in fee, or as subscribers, who have a voice within tactical committees that make recommendations but not an executive committee vote, Pages said.

Each member jurisdiction would have one vote on the executive board, which would tell the organization's executive director what to do, he said.

Whether member or subscriber, agencies would pay for the services they want, from dispatch and radio to different record systems, based on their actual use, Pages said.

Overall, Franklin Fire District 3 Chief Les Litzenberger said the proposal seems workable but he had some questions about the costs.

The fire district's costs were estimated to double to about $22,000 in the report, but Litzenberger said the increase may be less because the current costs in the report seemed lower than what the district pays for the services.

Steve Taylor, Connell city administrator, said if the estimates are correct, the city would see a 66 percent increase in cost, to about $91,000.

The city will go with whatever the county decides, since Connell can't afford a separate dispatch system, he said. But $35,000 more would be a significant increase in the city's already tight budget, he said.

A transition period will be considered for cost increases and decreases for each agency, Crutchfield said.