Longboat Key Police Chief Pete Cumming estimates that dispatch centers throughout the country will undergo major changes over the next four to six years. The upgrades are needed as 911 upgrades accommodate modern communications, such as text-messaging and photos.
The town got a wakeup call about the changes ahead when Manatee County announced in September it will transition to the NextGen 911 system, which will allow dispatch to handle digital technology.
The announcement complicated the decision the Longboat Key Town Commission will make about a 2013 offer from the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office to consolidate its 911 dispatch services. Previously, the town thought it was comparing the sheriff’s offer to its current system. But Manatee’s planned shift means that changes are on the line whether the town stays with its current system or accepts Sarasota County’s proposal.
The town is finally starting to get answers to its 911 questions from the counties.
The annual costs to the town of sticking with an upgraded version of its current system with Manatee County include $24,287 for needs such as maintenance, licensing, computerization, creation of a cable between the town and county and replacement costs.
Manatee County would require the town to keep its own dispatchers, according to Town Manager Dave Bullock.
The Sarasota sheriff’s offer would not charge the town for dispatch personnel — a savings of approximately $250,000 in salaries and benefits for the Key’s five dispatchers.
“The offer is recognizing that emergency service is a countywide issue,” Bullock said.
The town synchronized its dispatch system for fire and rescue calls with Manatee County in 2008.
Firefighter/paramedics told the Longboat Observer that they miss the level of service they had with town dispatch.
“They would alert us if they had a key on file for residents out of town in the summer,” said Lt. Jason Berzowski, who is currently serving as acting deputy chief. “They also knew the addresses and locations much better. We were able to communicate as a whole better.”
“We used to call it our white knight service,” said Keith Tanner, firefighter/paramedic. “Calls were more efficient. We weren’t waiting for Manatee County to call our police station who then had to turn around and call us back. It was a better way of communicating.”
Cumming made his opinion about dispatch clear Jan. 28, when he spoke to the Rotary Club of Longboat Key.
“For me, the level of service is everything,” he said.
Cumming told the Longboat Observer:
“I think the price we’re paying for the dispatch that we’re currently receiving is small in comparison,” Cumming said. “The money (consolidation) would save the town is not going to be noticeable, but the level of service will be noticeable.”
With uncertainty over the town’s 911 dispatch service looming, it’s difficult for Cumming to maintain an experienced dispatch staff. In recent months, one dispatcher has resigned, and a second retired. A third dispatcher has accepted another job offer.
“We aren’t getting any applications from dispatchers with any experience,” Cumming said. “If we know we’re staying, I’m convinced we can get much more selective with applicants.”
Ultimately, the decision isn’t Cumming’s to make. He will make a recommendation, but the Longboat Key Town Commission will decide the future of dispatch.
The commission is scheduled to discuss the issue at a March workshop.
How Longboat Key 911 calls are dispatched
A Manatee County dispatcher answers 911 calls placed from Longboat Key landlines, along with cellphone calls that ping to Manatee County cellular towers. If a cellphone call pings to a Sarasota County cellular tower, a Sarasota County dispatcher handles it.
Police-related calls are forwarded to a town dispatcher; if it’s a fire rescue call, a Manatee County dispatcher handles it.