Countywide 911 call center a go

Roseville Fire Chief Richard Gasaway knows it won’t be easy to accommodate under a single roof the various emergency dispatching procedures used in each Ramsey County community.

For example, not all communities send out paramedics on calls, and while some send police as first responders, others don’t, Gasaway said.

St. Paul personnel can be alerted immediately at any of the city’s 16 fire stations, while smaller communities often have only part-time, on-call firefighters who respond to messages sent to their pagers.

And then there are the protocol questions, like how many rings are acceptable before a call is answered, which varies from place to place.

But with St. Paul’s approval last week of a revised plan to consolidate emergency dispatching services with Ramsey County — the last major hurdle to countywide consolidation — it looks like Gasaway and others will have to find some solutions.

And after months of vacillation and debate among officials from Ramsey County, St. Paul, Maplewood, White Bear Lake and the other suburban communities, this part may prove easier to work out.

“Early on we’ve been meeting regularly, but lately not so much,” said Gasaway, referring to a technical advisory group he is serving on for the project. “There were so many ‘who’s ins’ and ‘who’s outs’ that it kind of got set aside waiting for the elected officials to decide. (But) I think the meetings will start up again.”

A breakthrough compromise was reached in past weeks on a funding formula modified to be more favorable to the suburban communities, who felt the original plan amounted to subsidizing St. Paul.

Under the new formula, 60 percent of the operating costs for the new dispatch center are spread countywide on each community’s property-tax base. The remaining costs are to be assessed to the communities on a per-call basis.

The St. Paul City Council had been the last holdout on the new funding structure, but on Oct. 19 the council voted 4-2 to consolidate with Ramsey County under the new conditions.

Under the initial plan, which St. Paul agreed to in July, the city would have paid only 44 percent of the yearly bill, even though it accounts for 70 percent of the county’s emergency calls.

The entire project, which has been tied to the required upgrade to 800-megahertz communications systems, will cost $35 million, Ramsey County Manager David Twa said. Roughly half of that will be covered by state and federal grants, he said, with much of the remaining amount covered by bonds the county has already issued.

The four dispatch centers currently in use — operated by Ramsey County, St. Paul, Maplewood and White Bear Lake — will be replaced by a single center to be constructed at 609 Olive St. on the campus of the Law Enforcement Center in St. Paul.

After switching its position several times, the Maplewood City Council approved a joint powers agreement with Ramsey County on Oct. 10.

While White Bear Lake has a number of issues yet to be addressed and hasn’t signed an official agreement, the city has indicated their support for the plan.

The other communities, such as Roseville, which has been getting its service from St. Paul, will wait to see what comes next, though many of the suburban mayors have already pledged their support for the consolidation plan.

“How it will affect us I’m not sure, because the details haven’t been released on how that will work,” Gasaway said.

Ramsey County Board Chair Victoria Reinhardt said that improved public safety is the fundamental reason for consolidating the county’s four centers.

“To me this is very exciting that we have all the communities in Ramsey County coming together and recognizing the value of the underlying importance of public safety,” Reinhardt said.

Savings in capital costs will also result, Twa said, since only one center will have to be replaced or upgraded instead of four. There may be savings in operation costs, but that will depend on what service standards are agreed on, Twa said.

Initial preparations of the site could start as soon as this year. The new center should be operational by late next year, Twa said.

In the meantime, the technical and policy advisory groups will work on the protocols and standards to make sure everybody is working on the same page.

“It’s just a matter of putting the procedures together to meet the needs of the communities that are going to be served by consolidated dispatch,” Gasaway said. “There’s a lot of newness. We’re going to be dispatched a new way on a new system.”

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