Public safety answering point (PSAP) consolidation is a hot talking point in the public safety industry, most especially as it’s now reaching the legislative level in some states – as is the case in Illinois – and only increasing in terms of awareness and opinions on either side of the discussion. It’s far from a simple decision with a simple answer, but it’s an important question to ask and answer in the context of every agency’s and every community’s unique needs and operations.
In many cases, the perceived need to consolidate is driven by previous events in which a lack of interoperability – or the inability for first responders from different agencies to communicate with one another – adversely impacted their ability to respond to the crisis together. A few of the more notable examples in recent memory include 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing. In these cases the volume of first responders coordinating their efforts exceeded typical needs, but without proper technology or protocols that enabled them to do so effectively.
In theory, consolidation is intended to reduce the number of 911 centers while maximizing the ability to service communities. In many cases, consolidation is done by centralizing different types of dispatchers into the same agency environment, but it may also be done by integrating multiple 911 centers in order to service a larger territory – such as multiple towns and cities.
Different approaches to consolidation
There are three primary ways to consolidate, in addition to a fourth option which is to forgo consolidation entirely. This, again, adds to the complexity of the discussion, as it’s not a simple matter of deciding to do so or not, but also deciding which approach is best.
As the name implies, this is a complete commitment to consolidation. There is a single building hosting a single team which works on a single array of technologies with a single set of processes and procedures. While this may be the most challenging to implement due to the level of coordination and infrastructure required, it can yield impactful results by unifying diverse skill sets and qualifications in order to empower teams to respond comprehensively to the community’s needs.
A significant advantage to this approach is multiple agencies benefitting from the economics of scale, as the more resources and overhead expenses are shared, the more budget is freed for other items – most especially additional personnel. For example, the cost of a phone system won’t vary greatly between 15 or 50 people, which can afford more impactful resources as the result of teams sharing the expense. Repeat this with many other expenses, such as the facility or other equipment, and it can result in more budget saved which means more personnel hired. Additionally, it can help maintain a larger staff who receives more consistent training, and the staff size can provide a helpful buffer that enables more flexibility with shift selection, improved benefits, and more.
Conversely, challenges can include certain agencies feeling like they don’t have a voice when it comes to making decisions that impact them at the communication center. This can be mitigated or exacerbated by the infrastructure of their governing body, but it can result in a feeling of a loss of control. Additionally, where first responders once had specialized skill sets, now entire teams are generalized. Although this is not an inherent flaw with consolidation and is more so dependent on the quality of training – it’s an important challenge to consider and undertake.
In agencies which choose to co-locate, multiple teams occupy a single space, but are not unified in their operations and remain distinct and separate. Similarly while their technology may both occupy that space, they are not necessarily interoperable – think separate CAD systems. This method requires the least investment to execute as it’s more of a physical transition than an operational one.
Interestingly, relationships between teams can be improved or damaged – or both – when it comes to co-location. By working alongside one another, morale and inter-departmental rapport can be greatly improved and lead to better collective operations. But by putting multiple teams in direct comparison – where one may be paid better, enjoy better benefit packages, or be bound by better collective bargaining agreements or other amenities – it can create tension, or even result in one team struggling to hire while the other has more personnel due to reputation.
This approach does still offer some capitalization on shared overhead, as the budget doesn’t need to be divided between two different structures, but ultimately they are only sharing the costs of the buildings and utilities while all other expenses remain separate. Similarly, teams are enabled to greatly improve their communications by operating side-by-side, but ultimately dispatching efforts do remain separated and aren’t able to support one another as comprehensively as is the case with full consolidation.
A hybrid solution will be unique in each case it’s implemented. This is typically where teams share a physical space, as well as some other technological systems, tools, or management, but the combinations are endless. Each approach will offer different advantages and disadvantages depending on how resources are allocated.
Potential reasons to consolidate
When administrative or accounting bodies evaluate budget, there can be a significant return on investment which motivates organizations to pursue consolidation. Especially when executed properly and with thoughtful planning, consolidation can be a high-impact solution that can improve efficiencies across the board – financially, but also operationally. Consolidation can alleviate challenges with red tape and streamline bureaucratic processes when funds are not being divided across multiple locations, rather than to a single body. Because the saved finances are commonly diverted to more personnel, it also often helps management ensure adequate coverage with less reliance on overtime.
In specific instances, the push for consolidation may come as the direct result of a single event in which a lack of interoperability adversely affected an outcome. For example, if a first responder dies on duty and triggers a post-mortem, if it’s revealed that inadequate communications played a contributing role, it may identify a need to improve efficiencies which consolidation may be the best and most impactful method to do so.
Potential reasons to not consolidate
Consolidation is a significant undertaking, and depending on how it’s executed it could adversely impact the quality of skill sets and qualifications. There may be instances where those dispatching law enforcement are not equally qualified to dispatch fire (or vice versa), which can create liabilities for all involved.
While consolidation is not ‘best’ and not consolidating is not ‘worst’, sometimes the aversion to consolidation isn’t because it is actually a poor solution – in fact, it may be the best solution – but instead because those who oppose it have only been exposed to environments where it was not done well. For example, hybrid consolidation can come in so many different forms, which is often up to the complete discretion of the specific agencies involved. Due to the complexity of consolidating effectively, it takes a significant amount of time, research, and energy to do so in a way that is truly fitting to the needs of those involved. In some cases, consolidation is rushed or not done with sufficient thought to infrastructure, and it may not even be realized that this is the case and instead leaves people with a poor impression of consolidation as opposed to seeing an effective example.
Ultimately the industry-wide conversation of consolidation will likely remain at the forefront of the public safety dialogue, and it often won’t be a simple or straightforward one. There is no one-size-fits-all answer for all agencies, towns, cities, and states, and there are many moving pieces to consider in the context of any given operation. In all cases, research and planning will always be the best approach to determine how to best meet the needs of your community.