Some lawmakers on the Planning and Development Committee will push for regionalizing the state’s complex network of emergency call answering centers this year amidst controversy over an executive effort to consolidate State Police dispatch centers.
Rep. Jason Rojas, co-chairman of the Planning and Development Committee, said he plans to raise a bill unrelated to the State Police dispatch center consolidation, an effort already under way within Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration.
The Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection’s initiative to reduce the number of State Police dispatch centers from 12 to 5 has been vehemently opposed by the Connecticut State Police Union. Lawmakers representing impacted towns have indicated they will seek to review the State Police dispatch consolidation this year.
Rojas’s bill would look to consolidate some of the state’s 100 or so Public Safety Answering Points. PSAPs are call centers that are scattered across the state. They are often operated by individual municipalities.
What happens now if you dial 911, is your call is picked up by someone at a local PSAP, who will direct it to the appropriate agency or dispatch center. But how an emergency call is handled in Connecticut depends on the town or region of the state from which the call is made.
Rojas is hoping to merge some of these call centers in an effort to encourage regional cooperation and “reduce the level of fragmentation and duplication of efforts that’s present in Connecticut in just about everything we do.”
But Rojas acknowledges the ongoing quarrel over State Police dispatch centers doesn’t help his cause.
“The way that’s happened — it’s certainly not helpful to this effort, but there’s some different issues at play here,” he said.
That’s because, according to some recent studies, Connecticut’s network of call centers could benefit from some regionalization. Rojas points to a study published last year by the New England Public Policy Center, which concluded that Connecticut could reduce its related expenses by roughly 60 percent by consolidating the centers by county.
According to the study, Connecticut and Massachusetts have more centers than the national average relative to their land areas and populations.
“This decentralized PSAP structure leaves significant room for consolidation,” the study read. “Even after accounting for the relatively large number of cities, towns, and other local governments, Massachusetts and Connecticut have exceptionally large numbers of PSAPs, compared with other states.”
However, consolidation can be a difficult sell to towns if it means giving up local control. A survey found that many towns would consider the consolidations, but they often want conditions like having the merged facility located in their municipality.
The Planning and Development Committee raised a bill last year that would have required another study on the issue, but the proposal died in the Appropriations Committee. Municipal organizations like the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and the Council of Small Towns supported that bill.
But some were wary of a state mandate driving the consolidations.
“Some towns may want to participate in consolidation programs but should not be forced to regionalize if they believe that it will undermine public safety or increase costs for their communities,” Betsy Gara, executive director of COST, said last year.
It’s not clear yet how this year’s proposal will be written. The concept is listed as one of many the Planning and Development Committee will raise for consideration when the group meets on Friday.
Rojas said he would prefer to incentivize regional mergers through funding adjustments over time. He said some towns may still view the change as a mandate for consolidation.
“I think we may be at a point where that has to happen,” he said.
Opposition to state mandates has killed the dispatch regionalization proposal in the past. A version of the bill successfully cleared the legislature in 2010, but was vetoed by former Gov. M. Jodi Rell. In her veto message, Rell said she supported the concept of regionalism but called the bill “problematic” because it mandated a change without considering the individual emergency needs of towns.
“The law mandates a one-size fits all approach without consideration of the fact that certain regions may have different needs in emergency services and competing obstacles to consolidation,” she said. “. . . A service as critical as the dispatch of emergency services is best managed through customized decisions made at the local level, rather than a broad-brush mandate imposed from the State Capitol.”
It’s not the only reason that some towns oppose the concept. Many are uncomfortable with the idea of their local emergency stations going “dark” after hours or don’t want to see a reduction of their direct oversight of the dispatch centers. Critics of the proposal also say a regional approach to dispatch reduces the level of specific community knowledge on the part of the telecommunication staff.