The City of Hartford has a proud history of providing dispatch services to the community since 1967. There have been, and continue to be, many technological advances in 9-1-1 answering services over the years. The most recent change in technology they are facing is the transition to Next Generation 9-1-1 services. These services allow the caller in an emergency to text, send a picture, and/or send a video to a 9-1-1 dispatcher. As you can imagine, providing these types of services will require additional staffing and a significant upgrade in current technology. To implement this new way of 9-1-1 services, our communications center will need to double the staff in this area. Recruiting dispatchers is a challenge and has been made increasingly difficult following the COVID-19 pandemic. There are fewer individuals that seek a very technical, stressful, job that requires them to work in a rotation, around the clock, and on weekends and holidays. The move to Next Gen 9-1-1 will also require a technology upgrade to the current 9-1-1 system to allow it to accept and store new types of data, update the GIS, and the physical area where the dispatchers currently work to include additional workspace for staff.
Hartford dispatch answers all wireline 9-1-1 calls, but Washington County Sheriff’s dispatch center answers all the wireless 9-1-1 calls. This equates to between 80% to 90%of all 9-1-1 calls and continues to grow as fewer individuals and businesses use wireline for their phone service. The second service standard would require us to double our staffing as our minimum is always currently one dispatcher on duty with occasional overlap for a few hours every so often. The hiring of additional staff to comply with this requirement would come at great expense and would require an increase in the tax levy.
In addition to the language regarding allowable expenses for Next Gen 9-1-1 implementation in the grant solicitation, was language about consolidation. Activities to consolidate some or all functions of two or more PSAP’s were considered allowable expenses. The grant funds must be used in the direct support of the Designated PSAP’s consolidation of some or all functions of another PSAP. This language made it clear to us that even at the state government level consolidation was being encouraged. There is no path to grant funding for Hartford to implement Next Gen 9-1-1 services, therefore, the entire cost would fall on the Hartford taxpayers. The Washington County Sheriff’s department is the only PSAP eligible for the grant funding within the county and in fact has already received funding toward the implementation of their Next Gen 9-1-1 service.
Hartford dispatch could choose to stay the course and not move to the Next Gen 9-1-1 service, but in doing so, it would provide a lower level of service than all other residents in Washington County would experience in their respective communities. The decision to merge was based on the factors and considerations outlined above and was not an easy one. It was not based on the current or past performance of the staff in the dispatch center, who we know work diligently every day, around the clock, to provide the best service for our citizens. The pressure to consolidate is coming increasingly from the State of Wisconsin. We are not unique in this as other PSAPs in neighboring Ozaukee County made the same decision recently to merge their services with Ozaukee County. This is where the industry is headed, and where the resources are being directed.
As you can imagine, there are a lot of moving parts to the process of merging two dispatch centers, but we have planned it in a way that leverages the timing of normal attrition such that none of the staff will lose their employment with the City of Hartford because of the change in operations. There will of course be a change in city services in several areas that relate to the dispatch center, but every effort is being made to mitigate any foreseeable issues during the planning and implementation phases.
Many are wondering how their interaction with Hartford Police services will be because of this change in operations. The administrative phone line (262)673-2600 still be answered during the day by Police Support Specialists if the (new) auto attendant does not meet the caller’s needs. Citizens that visit our lobby will still be greeted during the day by a Police Support Specialist that can help them with their needs. After hours, they can pick up the phone to be in contact with a dispatcher at Washington County dispatch center that can connect them to Hartford Police services. Remember, between 80% and 90% of the 9-1-1 calls individuals in Hartford make are currently being answered by dispatchers at the Washington County Sheriff’s department. If an officer is requested, a Hartford police officer will still arrive to assist the individual in need. First responders from Hartford Fire and Rescue will continue to service the community. Hartford Utilities have already transitioned to an answering service, like the Village of Slinger uses currently, to answer calls for power outages and other utility issues. We are planning to move third shift dispatch operations over on October 9, 2023, and the remaining shifts by the first quarter of 2024.
Finally, though this change in operations is new to us, it is not new to many other law enforcement agencies with dispatch centers in neighboring counties and throughout the State of Wisconsin. There has been a growing shift in the direction of dispatch centers merging services, and advances in technology have helped to facilitate that change. Over the years we have forged a relationship with the Washington County Sheriff’s Department built on mutual respect, professionalism, and trust, and thus we are confident that throughout this process the best interests of our community will be at the forefront. Decisions like this are never easy. We give a tremendous amount of credit and praise to the men and women who have worked behind the phone and radio since 1967 to provide a high level of service to this community. Following this change in operations, those specialists will continue in their new role to provide professional services to those who chose to reside, work, or recreate, in the City of Hartford.
Information provided by Hartford Fire and Rescue Chief Paul Stephans and Hartford Police Chief Scott MacFarlan.