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Police Department to double dispatching staff, handle Statesboro Fire Dept. traffic
Bulloch County 911 will continue issuing emergency first callouts to both agencies; Barnard also supports move
Statesboro Police communications officers Lashawn Adams, front, Charita Foy, left, and Anna Kate Shafer man their stations during their shift on Wednesday, Dec. 8.
Statesboro Police communications officers Lashawn Adams, front, Charita Foy, left, and Anna Kate Shafer man their stations during their shift on Wednesday, Dec. 8. - photo by By SCOTT BRYANT/staff

With authorization from City Council, the Statesboro Fire Department and Statesboro Police Department are moving forward with a plan to merge the dispatching of fire calls – after the initial callout by 911 – into the existing SPD dispatching center at police headquarters.

In the process, the SPD dispatching center will be expanded with additional equipment and software and will hire eight additional dispatchers, doubling the number currently employed by the Police Department. Right now, all of the Statesboro Fire Department’s dispatching, including follow-up calls for continuing emergencies such as structure fires and rescues of entrapped drivers, is handled by the Bulloch County 911 Center, which also serves Candler and Evans counties under contract.

Under the new plan, the 911 center will still receive Statesboro city and fire district calls and send the first alert to the Statesboro Fire Department. But after that, the Police Department dispatching center will handle most of the radio traffic related to the call, such as dispatching specific apparatus to a fire and directing personnel on the scene.

“It’s not anything against 911, but they’re trying to do this for multiple agencies across three counties, and we felt like it was in our best interest, and if that helps them out on the back end by lessening that load, that’s just an additional benefit,” Statesboro Fire Chief Tim Grams said in an interview. “But the driving force behind all of this was for our agency and what we felt was best for the Statesboro Fire Department and the fire service delivery that we’re trying to provide.”

The city-provided communications with additional dispatchers will help increase accountability and “quality control” in the department’s fire response, he said.

 

Council OK’d it

Staff members from the city’s fire and police departments and the county’s 911 center had met and talked about the plan before an outline was presented to Statesboro’s mayor and council during a public work session in October. City Manager Charles Penny then presented a summary at the Nov. 16 regular City Council meeting where, after some brief discussion with Grams and Police Chief Mike Broadhead, the council members voted unanimous approval for moving forward, including hiring the additional dispatchers.

The target date to have the new dispatching system fully operational is July 1, which will be the start of the city’s next fiscal year. But equipment and software purchases, as well as hiring, are expected to be done in the current fiscal year. The hiring will occur after Jan.  1, so the city will incur less than half of a full year’s payroll expenses for the new dispatchers in this year’s budget.

 

Cost estimates

A cost estimate of a little over $416,000 for the startup and first full year’s operation was presented during the Oct. 19 work session. That projection included $287,165 to pay the eight additional dispatchers, $74,469 for installation of radio system components, $21,655 for CAD, or computer-aided dispatch software, and $32,965 for software for on-scene fire management.

However, Penny in talking to the mayor and council gave a broader estimate of $450,000.  Interviewed this week, Broadhead noted a revised startup and first-year expense estimate of $480,000. The $287,000 for the eight dispatchers’ salaries, he noted, had not included benefits. The $480,000 includes a rough estimate of 20% of the salary amounts for benefit costs and $6,000 for additional training of the SPD’s current dispatchers.

That training, Broadhead said, will include a "train the trainer" course so that experienced dispatchers can serve as in-house trainers and defray future training costs.

 

Hiring soon

The city will be posting job opportunity notices for the additional dispatchers very soon, Broadhead said. All will be Police Department  employees. He hopes to begin hiring in January toward having the plan in operation July 1.

“I’m not sure how realistic that is. It’s just really a target date at this point,” Broadhead said. “We’re going to have to buy some hardware and some software; that’s the easy part. It really is a question of finding talented dispatchers and getting them trained.”

The department is willing to train people who have not been dispatchers before, but they must show some aptitude for a job that requires multitasking, “being able to talk on the radio and talk on the phone and type all at the same time,” sometimes nonstop.

“It’s a difficult job, very demanding,” he said.

New hires will be trained first in police dispatching and later will go through the new training in fire dispatching. Meanwhile, all of the current SPD dispatchers will also receive training in handling  fire calls.

This cross-training means that the additional dispatchers will also be able to handle police calls. Currently, the Police Department employs eight dispatchers, one of whom serves as the supervisor. When the goal of hiring eight more is met, the current supervising dispatcher could become a full-time supervisor over a staff of 15 dispatchers, two of whom would probably double as part-time supervisors, Broadhead said.

Right now, the SPD tries to have two dispatchers on duty most of the time, but for a few hours each day there is only one, he  said. The new plan, when fully staffed, would provide three on duty at all times, on three overlapping shifts in each 24 hours.

Last year the Police Department logged about 51,000 calls for service, from checking to  make sure businesses were secure  to homicide investigations. The police  dispatchers not only take phone  calls  and coordinate with officers through the radio, they also start the report writing  system by  entering  data. They handle warrant clearances and confirmations and call in social  workers when officers determine one is needed.

“So they’re sort of the hub of all of the activity in a police department,” Broadhead said.

The Fire Department gets fewer calls – 1,284,  including  320 actual emergencies,  in 2020 –  but some of them are complicated.

“You know, alarms, car fires, dumpster fires, those are pretty straightforward: ‘Hey, we’re in route, we’re on scene,’” Grams told the mayor and council. “But with structure fires, they (dispatchers) are literally part of the operation. So, it’s hard to multitask when you’re working a structure fire … or when there’s traffic or a mayday situation, when a firefighter gets entrapped.”

He indicated that it is especially for such situations that he wants Statesboro Fire to have dispatchers available outside of the Bulloch County 911 Center, whose dispatchers are fielding calls from across three counties.

 

Barnard supports

Bulloch County 911 Director Kelly Barnard does not object. 

“I think it’s a great thing because there’s a lot of resources that go into something like a structure fire or a rescue call, and them wanting to do it, I’m fine with that. … It will work out for us too, because it does free us back up to take the next emergency call,” Barnard said this week.

Serving three counties with a combined population of more than 102,000, the 911 call center when fully staffed employs 14 full-time dispatchers. Right now, it has one vacancy.  The center also has four part-time positions, for dispatchers who can be called on in expected high activity times, such as Georgia Southern Eagles football weekends, and as substitutes.

“Our call volume has just continued to climb, climb, climb, and we have not done a whole lot of increases in staffing, but we would like to add a couple more dispatchers some time in the future,” Barnard said.

Besides still sounding the alarm tones to the SFD’s stations, the 911 center will forward initial CAD information about the location and nature of the call.  Additionally, the center will call out the Bulloch County Fire Department when the Statesboro department needs its assistance, Barnard said, and the 911 center remains the only dispatcher of the Emergency Medical Service, frequently called to structure fires.

“So there’s still going to be a lot of communications between us and the agency,” she said.  “That’s not ever going to go away, and the 911 calls are still coming to 911, so we’re still going to take that original phone call.”

 

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