Civilians to Staff Combined 9-1-1 Call Center in Columbus, Ohio
Lucas Sullivan, THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Columbus plans to consolidate its police and fire 911 call centers and replace uniformed dispatchers with civilians, a move that drew a threat of a political “bloodbath” from the firefighters’ union president.
Mayor Michael B. Coleman mandated that the city’s Department of Public Safety make the changes by 2015, saying he wants to streamline communication services, better protect the public and save money.
A combined call center would handle about 700,000 emergency calls a year. About 90 percent of those calls result in a police or fire run, according to the city’s data. The change largely affects the Division of Fire, which assigns 60 to 65 firefighters to answer and dispatch emergency calls. The Division of Police has used civilian dispatchers for at least 15 years, safety officials said. Jack Reall, the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 67, responded to the plan with an email to firefighters last week in which he promised a political fight that “is likely to be a bloodbath leaving nobody unscathed,” including City Council members and Coleman.
Reall did not respond to calls seeking comment.
“Our goal is to maintain a separate fire-based dispatching center using firefighters in the most effective manner for the safety of our firefighters on the street and the citizens we serve,” Reall wrote in his email, obtained by The Dispatch.
Jason Pappas, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police Capital City Lodge No. 9, said the consolidation doesn’t appear to significantly affect police officers. Coleman said through a spokesman that he has wanted the consolidation for “a long time” and feels “firefighters belong on the street protecting people.” Coleman did not respond to Reall’s email other than to say he has told his safety chiefs “to get this done.”
It is unclear how much money a consolidated operation would save. Factor in lower salaries paid to civilian dispatchers compared with firefighters and a reduction in overtime because more firefighters are on the street, safety officials said, and the savings will likely be in the millions of dollars over time.
Columbus would join many other large cities across the country and the state in consolidating call centers and staffing them with civilians. Cities such as Toledo and Dayton have combined 911 dispatching services with their county sheriff’s and other area emergency departments.
Police and fire unions in those areas argued that civilian dispatchers would not understand language used by officers and firefighters or effectively coordinate a response to an emergency scene.
“There is a big cost difference because I am paying a deputy about $60,000 or so to work in the call center, and a civilian tops out at around $40,000,” said Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer, who oversees a regional dispatching center for 18 police and fire departments. “And I’ve found civilians are better at dispatching because they care more about the officers and firefighters than the officers care about each other.”
Columbus public-safety officials said a consolidation would likely require relocating the call center from 1250 Fairwood Ave. to city property on Groves Road on the Far East Side.
“We are in the process of evaluating what our best options are,” said Amanda Ford, spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Public Safety. “The safety director and the fire chief will work together on evaluating the best options for a communications center.”
And about the threats by Reall?
“The reality is we have to work with the union, and we know how powerful our IAFF union is here,” Ford said. “We want to maintain a good relationship to try to come up with a process that works best for everyone.”