By Brent Curtis
Rutland Herald staff writer | February 10,2015
Close to 100 emergency response workers and local lawmakers gathered at the Center Rutland Fire Station to discuss the governor’s proposed plan to consolidate dispatch call centers on Sunday evening.
Rutland County legislators appealed to a roomful of firefighters, police and emergency medical personnel Sunday night to help them fight plans to merge the emergency dispatch center with the one in Windham County.
“Don’t give up,” Rep. Charles “Butch” Shaw, R-Pittsford, said to about 75 firefighters, EMTs and police officers who crowded into the Center Rutland fire station Sunday night. “It may seem like a lost cause today, but don’t give up. Keep up the public pressure by calling the governor’s office and calling the commissioner (of public safety).”
Since Gov. Peter Shumlin announced last month’s plans to save $1.7 million by merging the four state-run 911 call centers into two centers based in Williston and Rockingham, Rutland County legislators and emergency responders in the county have opposed the move.
But Sunday night was the first time the two sides came together to talk about what could be done to stop the move. Fire departments from 15 towns were represented at the meeting along, with three rescue squads, two police departments, and some of the 16 full-time dispatchers working in the Rutland state police barracks whose jobs would be either transferred or eliminated by the merger.
They were joined by 11 legislators, including the county’s three senators, two city alderman, and selectmen from Rutland Town and Proctor, as well as Vincent Illuzzi, a former longtime state senator who is now a contract lobbyist for the Vermont State Employees Association.
An initial push by the county’s delegation to convince the administration to merge the emergency dispatch center in North Clarendon, rather than in Windham County, failed after Shumlin insisted he wanted the dispatchers housed in a new barracks slated to be built in Westminster next year.
Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, said the county’s legislators are looking at other ways to take the governor up on his challenge to find $1.7 million in savings elsewhere in the state budget.
“We’re keying in on other sources of revenue and looking at the economic arguments,” Mullin said. “We don’t believe we can save the $1.7 million the governor is counting on from this consolidation, anyway.”
Illuzzi, who traveled four hours from Orleans County to attend the meeting, also questioned the administration’s plan to save money through consolidation.
Part of the merger plan calls for eliminating 14 to 20 of the 71 full-time 911 dispatchers in the state. But Illuzzi said $45,000 worth of the salaries and benefits being paid to those dispatchers is already being paid for through a universal service fund collected by every phone company in the country.
“Why would you cut a position that’s already paid for in large part through a universal fund?” Illuzzi said.
While the state might not save much money, Shaw and other legislators said the Rutland region would. Using calculations generated by Rutland Economic Development Corp., the legislators said the region stood to lose 41 jobs, worth $2.2 million in wages. Those numbers are based upon support services for the dispatch center.
But most egregious of all to the emergency responders in the room was what they said would be the risk to public safety if the emergency call centers were merged and the number of dispatchers cut.
“They’re running around (in Montpelier) saying there’s absolutely no safety risks from this move,” Mullin said to a chorus of guffaws from the room.
Illuzzi said call statistics and a report commissioned by the Department of Public Safety less than two years ago belied the administration’s assertions.
In a report published in November 2013, state police Capt. Donald Patch wrote “With the current level of dispatching and E-911 call-taking duties, the state police cannot handle a significant increase in dispatching duties with the current staff, equipment and infrastructure.”
And the situation hasn’t gotten any better during the last 15 months, he said.
Illuzzi said that in Williston, which last year handled more than 70,000 911 calls — the highest number in the state — 32 hours of scheduled overtime are built in so the dispatcher can keep up with those calls and the roughly 35,000 other calls that the Williston center fields each year.
Under the plan to merge the four state emergency call centers, a portion of the dispatchers from Derby would be moved to Williston along with the more than 20,000 911 calls and 20,000 non-emergency calls that the Derby center handles annually.
“Our question is, ‘How do you solve an overtime problem by firing people? It makes no sense,” Illuzzi said.
In Rutland, where 38,000 emergency calls and 29,000 non-emergency calls were handled last year, an unknown number of the dispatchers would be moved under the administration’s plan to Rockingham, where 26,000 emergency and 22,000 non-emergency calls were received last year, according to handouts Illuzzi brought to the meeting.
With fewer dispatchers and an estimated increase of 7,000 emergency calls annually, Illuzzi and emergency personnel in the room said Vermont’s dispatch centers should be increasing, not decreasing.
“This is, in our judgment, a plain crazy idea,” Illuzzi said.
Legislators said they were told that technological improvements would compensate for a decrease in personnel, but that explanation was dismissed by emergency responders in the room.
“I asked about technology and was told by the commissioner that they could throw the switch today, and it would work wonderfully,” Rep. Peter Fagan, R-Rutland, said to a chorus of laughter from the assembly.
“We haven’t even been told how the technology is going to work,” said Rutland Fire Chief Robert Schlachter, who presided over the meeting as the chairman of the Rutland County Fire Mutual Aid service. “I don’t want to wake up one morning and find out it’s not going to work. I want them to prove to me it’s going to work, and I don’t think they can.”
Fair Haven Police Chief William Humphries said technology has yet to solve his reception problems, and he predicted communications would only get worse if the dispatch center was moved.
“As I was leaving my house last night, a call came in while I was driving through Wells, and I lost contact with the dispatcher all the way to Fair Haven,” he said. “On the whole, the corridor from Poultney to Fair Haven is really bad.”
The only way legislators could block the merger, Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, said, would be by gathering enough votes to add language prohibiting the move to the governor’s budget.
“We could put affirmative language in that says ‘This ain’t going to happen folks,’” she said. “That’s really the only way to stop it and that’s why we need your help. While our delegation is united, we’re small as compared to the whole group. We can complain all we want … but unless we get the votes, we’re not going to get what we want.”
Flory and other legislators appealed to the assembly to lodge their objections with the governor’s office — and to find at least 15 friends and family members to do the same, as well as to reach out to legislators in other counties.