the telephone number is 911

The Pearl Street 911 Center has come under fire ever since it started. A recent letter to the editor in the Northfield News reminded me of one of the reasons.

There was a letter to the editor in the 9-28-05 edition of the Northfield News that caught my attention. The writer was registering a public complaint about the Pearl Street 911 Center. I won’t go into the details of the letter, other than to say the writer was advocating for a return to having emergency dispatching services handled locally as opposed to the current system of a consolidated center.

The consolidation of government services is often a good deal. Smaller units of government can boost their purchasing power, reduce personnel costs and duplication of services. Sounds pretty good, right?

But there is a tradeoff. In this particular case, your dispatcher is now in the Law Enforcement Center in Owatonna. No one ever talks to one of them face to face, only over the phone or the radio. This reduces the level of personal service that many in Northfield grew accustomed to. Now if you stop into the police station and want to talk to a police officer, you have to pick up a phone in the lobby to talk to the dispatcher in Owatonna. You used to be able to talk to the dispatcher through a window, and often that person could help you.

This disadvantage also applies to emergency workers. Effective communication between coworkers (and that’s what dispatchers and emergency personnel are, right?) is dependant to some extent on a personal connection and level of trust. Hard to develop that over the phone or airwaves. So if a firefighter thinks a dispatcher made a mistake, he either calls over the phone or tells his supervisor. If a dispatcher thinks a firefighter made a mistake, they have the same obstacle. Bad for everyone.

Is the tradeoff worth it? That question needs to be asked of our elected officials. The Joint Dispatch Center has oversight and budgetary control from a joint powers board consisting of elected officials from Rice and Steele Counties and the cities of Faribault, Northfield and Owatonna. They meet the first Wednesday of the month at 4:00 p.m. at one of the County Government Centers.

The Joint Powers Board is getting ready to spend a significant amount of money (probably in the millions) to revamp the computer aided dispatch system and records management system. Seems like a good time to follow along.

In my opinion, the joint center is a good idea. Some of the complaints in the letter to the editor have more to do with the differences between the two types of incidents the writer described than the difference in dispatching services. There are always ways to improve, but as the center looks to make significant changes in technology, I am more concerned about them making choices that allow for expansion and addition of services and updated technology. We’ll find out in the next few months if they can meet that challenge.