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February 27, 2013

Fraser city officials want to keep dispatch in-house

By Nico Rubello
C & G Staff Writer

FRASER — Whatever happens in other cities and townships, Fraser city officials agree on one thing: Consolidating 911 dispatch services with Macomb County isn’t on their to-do list.

In September, when neighboring communities were eying consolidating their police and fire dispatch operations with the county, Fraser officials instead authorized the purchase of a new 911 computer system.

Under the City Council’s decision, the $129,000 system, which went into use in December, will be paid for throughout an almost five-year span out of the city’s gambling forfeiture funds; no tax dollars are being used.

At the time, city officials said the new 911 system was needed to replace the 20-year-old, antiquated system previously in use.

But the investment also seemed to serve as a clear sign that, as far as the city was concerned, in-house dispatch services in Fraser weren’t going anywhere soon.

“Every community has different needs,” said Fraser Public Safety Director George Rouhib. “This community, from what I’ve seen, our dispatch works and it’s here to stay for a long time, other than the state saying, ‘You have to consolidate.’”

No such mandate exists, but some advocates of dispatch consolidation have noted that the state will likely provide more grants to municipalities that consolidate services.

Clinton Township and Sterling Heights have already voted to merge emergency dispatch. Ultimately, dispatch for both will be run out of Macomb County’s $11 million high-tech communications center, once it is operational later this year.

The center will combine dispatching for the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office, Emergency Management and Communications Department, and Department of Roads under one roof.

During his State of the County address in December, County Executive Mark Hackel said that the new communications center could be expanded to serve any of the county’s 27 municipalities, if they so choose.

In Clinton Township, advocates of dispatch consolidation say it will allow the township to provide equal or better 911 services at annual cost savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Governing officials from the township noted that municipal revenue, both from property tax revenue and state revenue-sharing dollars, have decreased dramatically during the last few years.

In Fraser, however, Rouhib said that the Public Safety Department has already “right-sized” its budget by reducing the number of officers and command staff during the last 10 years, which has saved the city hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Even though our services haven’t suffered, we’ve already made our sacrifices,” Rouhib said. “We’ve made our cuts over the years, and I’m pretty satisfied that this is where we’re going to be for a while.”

Fraser Councilwoman Barb Jennings said reports conducted by the city have indicated that the dollar savings generated by outsourcing dispatch would be miniscule compared to the intangible cost of potentially increasing police and firefighter response times.

Clinton Township officials, meanwhile, have maintained that dispatch consolidation would not harm response times.

Rouhib also said eliminating in-house dispatch wouldn’t make sense from an organizational standpoint. Unlike in Clinton Township, Fraser dispatchers monitor prisoners and serve walk-ins. So, if dispatch were eliminated in Fraser, a Public Safety officer would have to be taken off the road to do those duties, but at a higher pay rate.

In general, opponents of dispatch consolidation also say the move will hurt the “personal touch” that they say exists between dispatchers and residents, and between dispatchers and first-response personnel.

City Councilman Mike Carnagie said dispatchers have a geographic familiarity with the city, which he said would be lost when they’re pooled into a consortium.

As an on-call Fraser firefighter, Carnagie said he knows city dispatchers help improve the emergency response times. Sometimes they can identify a location with no address, based on a caller’s description, he said. Sometimes they direct firefighters to the nearest hydrant as the firefighters are en route.

All help keep Fraser response times down to just two or three minutes, officials say.

“I’m a firm believer that, if you can keep it in your own city, it’s always best to use your own people,” Carnagie added.

Councilman Paul Cilluffo has been a staunch proponent of keeping dispatch in-house, which he said is the first line of defense municipalities have against crime and emergencies. He said Fraser officials use a one-year budget to closely manage city finances on a year-to-year basis.

“I have to try to give the residents the ultimate service that we can afford. Right now, we can afford (in-house dispatch),” he said.

Cilluffo questioned whether dispatch consolidation would improve the quality of the public-safety service provided to residents of the Fraser community. “Will you end up with something less or more?” he asked.

Rouhib added that, once eliminated, dispatch services are not easily returned.

“If you eliminate your service, you better be prepared not to get it back,” he said. “For now, (the current system) works well. The citizens are happy, the (City Council) is happy.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Nico Rubello at nrubello@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1118.