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Governor’s working group strongly recommends against consolidating 911 dispatch centers

Group says investment and sophisticated mapping needed first to improve rural 911 services
Alaska State Troopers
Alaska State Troopers(KTUU)
Published: Dec. 28, 2020 at 6:46 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - A working group established by the governor has strongly recommended against a plan to consolidate 911 dispatch centers across Southern Alaska.

The plan would see a new dispatch center in Palmer take 911 calls from the Kenai Peninsula, Southcentral and Southeast Alaska to send Alaska State Troopers out on assignments. Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued an administrative order in June to examine that plan after an outcry from some legislators.

The group sent its final report to the governor in late November, it was scathing of the consolidation plan:

  • It found that consolidating 911 dispatch centers would “likely diminish services” across Southern Alaska.
  • Proposed staffing levels reducing 11 dispatchers to four dispatchers “are unrealistic and would jeopardize public and officer safety.”
  • It would eliminate surge capacity if there was a major emergency or if the center in Palmer was unable to operate.
  • Consolidation would not save the state an estimated $700,000 but would likely cost it more.

The final report recommends that the current “blended” model of municipal and state dispatchers working at the same centers across Southern Alaska continues to operate and be funded at current levels. It also recommends that a standard certification for dispatchers be established statewide.

“Currently, a hairdresser requires more training than a 9-1-1 telecommunicator,” the report reads.

A dispatch center in Fairbanks that serves Northern Alaska acted as the model for the consolidation plan, the northern dispatch center is said to be working well.

The governor’s office released a statement on Monday saying that Dunleavy was looking at all his options when it came to the 911 consolidation plan for Southern Alaska. “His focus remains the same in making sure 911 services are efficient and accessible to Alaskans,” the statement said.

Mayor Rodney Dial of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, and a retired Alaska State Trooper, sat on the working group and advocated strongly to keep the Ketchikan dispatch center operating. That center was on the chopping block but the Department of Public Safety signaled during working group meetings that that plan is currently on hold.

A central point of the final report is explaining what the governor’s consolidation doesn’t do. “The one thing to remember from this proposal is that this does not increase 911 services to rural Alaska at all,” Dial said.

The Alaska Legislature passed an operating budget in 2018 with $3.5 million allocated to help expand “enhanced” 911 services in the Bush. That type of 911 system allows dispatchers to track the location of an emergency caller which is important if a call cuts out.

Department of Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price explained in August that there have been countless examples where troopers have been unable to pinpoint where a call was coming from in rural Alaska. “We as first responders have absolutely no ability to get to them, we have no ability to know where they are,” she said.

Price was not available to comment on the final report on Monday, according to the Department of Public Safety.

The working group said there are some intermediate upgrades available to get location tracking services in place. The bigger priority is getting a Next Generation 911 system implemented. That type of system is described as faster and more resilient, and it works better with calls from cell phones.

Christine O’Connor, the executive director of the Alaska Telecom Association, said that system could be available in most parts of Alaska within five years, but there would need to first be sophisticated geographic information system mapping done across the state and coordination with local dispatch centers.

“We are so far from having all these pieces in place that we have not been able to estimate cost,” she added.

Thirteen states and territories have some form of Next Gen 911 system currently operating. Alaska telecommunications companies would need millions of dollars and the federal government would likely need to help with funding to get a Next Gen 911 system implemented across Alaska, the working group’s report reads.

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