By RANDI ROSSMANN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County’s four largest law enforcement agencies, all facing severe budget cuts, are considering consolidating emergency dispatch services.
Sonoma County’s sheriff and police chiefs from Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Rohnert Park this year began exploring the possible benefits of consolidation and hope to have their concerns answered by late summer.
“The idea makes sense to me if it saves money and it’s more efficient,” said Sheriff Steve Freitas. “We’re number crunching.”
Danny Fish, interim Petaluma police chief, is hopeful. “I think consolidation is the wave of the future,” he said.
The plan would move dispatchers from the county’s major police agencies under a single umbrella organization. Still to be considered is the impact on dispatchers, whose salaries could be restructured, and whether 911 response times or levels of service to citizens would be affected.
Santa Cruz County underwent consolidation in 1996 and four agencies using 65 dispatchers dropped over time to a staff of 35, said Scotty Douglass. Santa Cruz County’s 911 regional manager.
Douglass, a former dispatcher, said the regional center has streamlined services that save law enforcement agencies money. He said the staff was cut through retirements and attrition, not layoffs, and he maintains that while some familiarity was lost between dispatchers and officers, the system is successful.
Any transition would pose challenges.
“The loss of autonomy, seniority issues, becoming part of a bigger organization” are all concerns for dispatchers, said Petaluma Officer Paul Gilman, president of the Peace Officers Association of Petaluma, the union representing dispatchers.
Dispatcher salaries at the four agencies range from the lowest starting salary of $3,550 monthly in Santa Rosa to a high of $8,425 monthly for a sheriff’s dispatch supervisor.
Could a veteran Rohnert Park dispatcher with a $5,140 monthly salary get a raise? Would a Santa Rosa veteran with a $6,090 monthly income take a pay cut?
The four agencies have 62 dispatch positions of which 57 currently are filled. The number needed for a regional center is one of the issues to be determined.
Santa Rosa’s dispatch center — the largest — has 24 allotted positions, with 22 currently filled, and fields the most calls, Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm said.
Several dispatchers for the agencies declined to speak about the issues, opting to wait to see plans unfold.
“They’d certainly be concerned about whether or not they would be able to stay employed … or whether or not the level of service for their particular community would be maintained,” said Loree Camden, a veteran Sebastopol police dispatcher.
The four top cops in each department said they don’t have answers yet but said they hoped layoffs would not be a part of consolidation.
Schwedhelm echoed other chiefs’ concerns that consolidation could reduce the level of dispatch service — at least temporarily.
“What we have here in Santa Rosa, it works for us. It’s an efficient system,” Schwedhelm said. “There’s a benefit of having dispatchers and officers in the street know each other. It’s not just a call-taking center,” he said.
“I need a lot more information to find out the pros and cons,” Schwedhelm said.
Rohnert Park Chief Brian Masterson had similar views:
“Most of my dispatchers live in Rohnert Park. When calls come out, they know exactly what (officers) are talking about in terms of a creek path, a playground area, a swimming pool. If you regionalize that service, you lose some of that familiarity,” he said.
In Santa Cruz, Douglass acknowledged an initial loss of familiarity. He said efforts are made for dispatchers to spend time with officers and deputies to foster better relationships and help dispatchers learn about the unfamiliar areas of the county they find themselves covering.
Fish, the Petaluma chief, said improved efficiency would come from consistent dispatching with fewer people. “Everybody does dispatching a little differently. By combining all of our resources … we’ll create one way of dispatching,” he said.
Fish said the issue has been raised before. But this time it’s getting a more serious look with the backing of city managers struggling with budget deficits.
There are 10 police dispatch centers in Sonoma County, including at Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University.
Regional dispatching is a trend emerging around the state and nation, said police officials, as a cost-saving step.
Some consolidation already is present in Sonoma County. Emergency police calls for Sonoma and Windsor, where police services are provided by the Sheriff’s Office, are handled under contract by sheriff’s dispatchers.
In a larger effort, the bulk of the county’s fire and ambulance calls operate from a single dispatch center. Petaluma fire calls may move to the regional center this summer, which Fish hoped would result in a cost savings.
If Rohnert Park moved to a regional dispatch service for police, it would consider moving its fire dispatch to the county fire consortium, Masterson said.
The regional fire agency, operating under a joint powers agreement by participating agencies, is called Redwood Empire Dispatch Communications Authority — dubbed Redcom — and is located at the Sheriff’s Office.
A regional police dispatch center could move there as well, as sheriff’s dispatchers currently work in a large room with extra space.
Sheriff Freitas said start-up costs are part of the consideration.
Staff Writer Julie Johnson contributed to this report.