Dispatch Consolidation Panned At Hearing

Article published Mar 18, 2015

By Josh O’Gorman

MONTPELIER — A proposal to consolidate the state’s emergency dispatch centers to save money is meeting opposition from the emergency responders themselves.

More than 100 people filled the House chamber Tuesday night for a joint hearing of the House and Senate committees on government operations to take testimony on a proposal to close dispatch centers in Rutland and Derby and consolidate their services in Rockingham and Williston.

The proposal, born out of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s State of the State address in January, would reduce the number of state dispatch centers from four to two, a move projected to save $1.7 million as the state looks to close a $112 budget gap.

The proposal would eliminate approximately 15 of the state’s 71 full-time and 33 temporary emergency dispatchers.

The four dispatch centers handle about 75 percent of emergency calls in the state, including 215,000 calls in 2014.

During that time period, the Rutland dispatch center took 38,000 emergency calls, and 65,000 calls total.

The House chamber was filled with both legislators in ties and jackets, and police, firefighters and emergency medical teachnicians in uniform. Prior to the hearing, Rep. Job Tate, R-Mendon, handed out candy Life Savers to the “life savers.”

Crystal Golden, a dispatcher in Rutland, presented a petition with 3,000 signatures from people in opposition to the proposed consolidation, as well as resolutions in opposition to the proposal from a number of towns, including Brandon, Castleton, Chittenden, Killington, Pawlet, Pittsford and Wallingford.

“Please do not put Vermonters’ lives in jeopardy with this ill-conceived proposal,” Golden said.

Donald Chioffi, a Select Board member in Rutland Town, where the Rutland dispatch center is located, noted that with the closing of stores at the Diamond Run Mall and the catastrophic fire that closed Rutland Plywood, the town has lost hundreds of jobs during the past year.

“Eliminating those 40 jobs amounts to kicking a community while it’s down,” he said of the possibility of closing the Rutland dispatch center.

Chioffi and many others argued that the loss of a local dispatch center will result in the loss of institutional memory and local knowledge that allows a dispatcher to provide emergency responders the information needed to best respond to a crisis.

“Lives that otherwise would have been saved will be lost, and property that could have been saved will perish,” said Chioffi, whose thoughts were echoed by Killington Fire Chief Gary Roth.

Roth also heads Killington Search and Rescue, which is frequently called to find Killington Ski Resort guests who have skied out of bounds and become lost. He said the consolidation of the state’s dispatch centers — formally referred to as public safety answering points, or PSAPS — will hurt his organization’s rescue efforts.

“The consolidation of PSAPs will affect my town,” Roth said. “Their ability to track down people in the backcountry, getting us to small back roads for fires and emergency, would be lost.”

Supporters of the consolidation plan, such as Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn, have argued that ever-improving technology will allow two dispatch centers to handle the same volume of emergency calls as four dispatch centers.

Lt. Rodney Pulsifer with the Brandon Police Department cautioned against relying on technology so much.

“Technology does fail,” said Pulsifer, himself a former emergency dispatcher. “I know how tense and stressful being a dispatcher will be. It doesn’t make sense, that with the amount of stress that is involved, that you would eliminate positions and put more stress on those people.”