By Jim Hagerty
CITY HALL — Consolidating the Rockford and Winnebago County 911 centers is about improving response times and overall services fire and police agencies provide to the community.
While the merger of sorts is not expected to result in real cost savings, the current setup of having two dispatch centers is long been deemed obsolete. Inadvertently rerouted calls, thousands of them, continue to cause delays. When a call comes into either center and is incorrectly rerouted to various cell towers, emergency vehicles aren’t dispatched until the logistics are figured out.
“This past year, we had 11,000 of those calls being transferred, hitting off the wrong cell tower,” Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara said. “They go to the city when it’s a county issue and vice-versa.”
The two centers receive approximately 350,000 calls a year. More than half of those are for emergencies.
The plan to create a single center was solidified in 2015, after a study that recommended moving county dispatchers to city’s location at the corner of Walnut and First streets. The county’s North Main Street center could still be used a backup.
Another reason for the move is the purchase of new communication equipment to replace the system that’s in place now. And with current problems with having two centers, leaders say there is no reason to mirror those efforts.
“I don’t think (the 911 systems) should have ever been duplicated,” said Winnebago County Board Chairman Frank Haney. “It’s a lot harder to put it back together.”
The purchase of a new system is led by the Winnebago County Emergency Telephone System Board, which comprises Rockford Fire Department Chief Derek Bergsten, Police Chief Dan O’Shea and various others appointed by Haney.
While additional costs or savings are not expected, officials say staffing is currently the most challenging aspect of a lone dispatch center. A lot of county employees are currently looking elsewhere for employment in wake of massive budget cuts and what have already been significant law enforcement layoffs.
“We’ll need every dispatcher from the county to make the consolidation to work,” Bergsten said. “We need 24 additional dispatchers to get to authorized strength to handle all the calls for Winnebago County.”
Right now, there are 17 employees at the county 911 center, which currently dispatches for several police agencies in the county, but not for fire departments.
The city is also battling a $10 million spending hole but has not seen any layoffs.
The city and county 911 centers separated in 2006, mostly to satisfy state law regarding backups of emergency systems. Software and hardware running a single center will include the latest computer-aided dispatch (CAD) software and a phone system that’s coming next year that will have the ability to accept 911 calls via text message. The CAD system is currently out for bid. The board pays for that hardware while participating municipalities will pay for record-management.
Leaders are also ironing out which partnering departments will be charged for services the 911 center will provide. Today, some departments pay for the service and some do not.
“One thing we are working on is including all of the expense and that everyone is paying their fair share of the employees needed to answer those calls, so the city doesn’t incur and additional expenses,” Bergsten, who chairs the Winnebago County Emergency Telephone System Board, added.
Before the city and the county split, fire departments were being charged for 911 services but not the vast majority of police agencies. With exception of two departments, those who have not been paying have been subsidized by the county. As a result of the new plan, Bergsten said some agencies have experienced sticker shock at the presentation of the full price. He added that the prior arrangement was not anything his board had a hand in.
“It was a policy decision on the part of the county,” the chief said. “They’ve been subsidizing every police department other than Loves Park and the Winnebago County Sheriff. So, it’s more on [the county’s] end. They are going to have to make a policy decision whether they are going to continue subsidizing them and at what rate.”
“I absolutely support the exploration of whether this can happen,” says Haney. “The status quo has some partners paying and others not. So now that we’ve flushed that out, let’s slow down a little bit, let’s get all our partners together on a level playing field and with the same information.”
The chairman added this is a proposal that has been kicking around the county and its cities for years, and that now is the time to find a solution for the benefit of public safety.
“When 11,000 calls are bouncing off the wrong cell tower, and it’s causing delays in service, that’s concerning to me—not just as chairman but as a taxpayer.”
The consolidation is pending approval by the Rockford City Council and Winnebago County Board. R.
Managing Editor Shane Nicholson contributing.