Elizabeth Regan
State Rep. Linda Orange (Elizabeth Regan)

What has been described as an expensive, disastrous effort to consolidate state police dispatch operations has come to an end.

Responding to a chorus of complaints from citizens, police, and lawmakers about increased response times and spiraling public confidence, Emergency Services and Public Protection Commissioner Dora Schriro on Monday announced plans to put dispatch operations back to the way they were before the consolidation that began under her predecessor.

Schriro said she is returning all state police call-taking and dispatch functions to their original, regional barracks.

The reversal will be phased in over the next several months, according to agency spokesman Scott DeVico. He said the consolidated dispatch center in Tolland will hand over responsibility to Troop E in Montville in the coming weeks, followed by Troop D in Danielson.

They will then return dispatch operations from the call center in Litchfield to Troop A in Southbury and Troop B in Canaan. The last barracks to take dispatch functions back will be Troop K in Colchester, which DeVico said is likely to happen sometime in the fall.

The consolidation initially cost about $3 million, according to DeVico, and will cost $380,000 to undo. The money will come from bonding and a capital equipment fund, he said.

State Rep. Linda Orange, D-Colchester, said those costs, combined with overtime expenses for the severely understaffed dispatch centers, are “astronomical.”

Orange said she advised the state against centralization 10 years ago after she visited a centralized dispatch center in Pennsylvania on a fact-finding mission at the request of then-House Speaker Moira Lyons. She found the same problems there that ended up plaguing consolidation in Connecticut.

The effort to reduce the number of state police dispatch centers from 12 to 5 began in 2012 under Commissioner Reuben Bradford. That same year, the Connecticut State Police Union condemned the leadership of Bradford and state police commander Col. Danny Stebbins in an overwhelming vote of no confidence.

Orange called Bradford well-intentioned, but said he “listened more to the colonel at that time, who has always wanted central dispatch.”

In the midst of a barrage of complaints about public safety issues stemming from the consolidation of dispatch centers in the eastern and western parts of the state, both Bradford and Stebbins retired last year.

Schriro, Bradford’s replacement, made it one of her first orders of business to halt the rollout of centralized dispatch. She also required all state police barracks to be continually staffed by troopers and shifted all administrative calls back to regional state police barracks.

Orange said allowing any troop to close its doors at any time is a threat to public safety. She referred to a murder that happened in her district after which someone walked into the state police barracks in Colchester to turn himself in.

“Had Schriro not opened the troops 24/7 and staffed them with troopers, that troop would’ve been closed,” she said.

State Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, has testified before the Public Safety Committee about children in Windham who locked themselves in a bathroom during a 2014 home invasion and had to wait 1.5 hours before a trooper arrived at the scene.

“If the dispatch centers had not been consolidated, officers could have been informed of the situation, and deployed to the home in a timely manner, not only possibly catching the thieves in the act, but more importantly, ensuring the safety of the two children trapped inside of their own home,” Flexer testified.

Flexer told lawmakers that response times increased anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes under consolidation. She said one factor at play is that dispatchers are unable to direct troopers in the most efficient manner because they are not familiar with the regions they are covering.

According to Orange, another factor is the layering of call takers and dispatchers. A dispatcher used to be able to contact a trooper right away while still taking information from the caller, but the consolidated format does not allow continual communication. Instead, the call-taker takes down the information before handing it off to the the dispatcher to contact the troopers. Orange also said response times have been hampered by the inexperience of new dispatchers who were hired to replace several that quit when the consolidation was announced.

Flexer released a statement Monday praising Schriro’s announcement.

“As I have said for more than a year, relocating Troop D dispatching to the main dispatch center in Tolland was a disaster,” she said. “Wait times increased for emergency and non-emergency services alike. That day-to-day feeling of security that residents have when they call 9-1-1 and the dispatcher knows where you are in town was gone. Public safety was truly at risk.”

Orange said she is thrilled about the reversal.

“This commissioner has listened to what everyone has had to say. Not just me, who’s very vocal about the issue, but all the constituents, the troopers, the dispatchers and everyone involved,” Orange said. “We won the fight.”

AFSCME staff representative Jeff Scanlon, chief negotiator for approximately 75 dispatchers around the state, echoed Orange’s praise for Schriro and her willingness to listen to everyone’s concerns. It’s the kind of consideration he said the union didn’t get when the members expressed concerns about the initiative back when it was implemented.

Since then, Scanlon said the consolidated centers have suffered from understaffing and involuntary overtime.

He said the consolidated setting requires a higher concentration of dispatchers than the barrack-based structure, but the full complement of staff was never achieved. He said one factor was the distance from the various troops to the centralized locations.  Some dispatchers viewed the commute as a hardship, he said.

Excess hours have also contributed to retention concerns, according to Scanlon. “Overtime, with a 24/7 operation, is part of the cost of doing business,” he said. “But…people were starting to be ordered almost on a daily basis and it was getting to the point where dispatchers were starting to feel the burn.” He said troopers stepped in to help.

Tim Walker, lead dispatcher at the Tolland barracks, welcomed the reversal as great news for all parties involved. “Reinstating dispatch and call taking functions at all troops is the best way to ensure the public’s safety and well-being. The governor and the commissioner deserve credit for listening to the concerns raised by front-line workers at barracks across the state,” he said in a statement.

The call centers in Litchfield and Tolland will be designated to handle an influx of calls caused by a catastrophic event and to provide backup in the event of a system failure, according to DeVico.

He said all current dispatchers at the consolidated call centers will be offered an opportunity to go back to the troops.