Burlington City Councilors Consider Regional Emergency Dispatch Center

Jan 2, 2018

During a recent meeting, the Burlington City Council debated whether a ballot question to approve a unified Regional Dispatch Center should be put before voters on Town Meeting Day.

Since 2016, the communities of Burlington, Colchester, Essex, Milton, Shelburne, South Burlington, Williston and Winooski have been researching the viability of creating a regional dispatch center. The Chittenden County Public Safety Authority would include a centralized 911 call center, to be
located in Burlington if the involved communities agree.

The committee seeking formation of the network needs approval from the municipalities to place the agreement on the Town Meeting Day Ballot. Representatives were at a recent Burlington City Council meeting to answer questions as councilors considered putting the ballot initiative before city voters. During the public comment session, Burlington’s Police and Fire Department emergency communications specialist Christy Lorrain was among several dispatchers who expressed concerns about the consolidated system.   “While dispatching regional has its place in smaller towns and cities, I don’t believe it has a place in Burlington. We are unique in our resources and protocols.  We cannot operate the same as the small towns can. What happens to community-based policing if we’re taking our dispatchers out of the community?”
City Council President Jane Knodell: “Alex Varino is next.”
Varino:  “I could go on at length about the many issues and concerns that have been raised about this center and ignored by the planning committee.  The lack of transparency coupled with the fact that the committee has been engaged in the planning of this center for around eighteen months now but has failed to include the dispatchers, officers and firefighters who actually do this job on a daily basis has created an atmosphere of mistrust. In addition to these concerns I believe the planning committee has been disingenuous with the data and statistics they have shared with the public in support of regional dispatching.”

Ward 8 Independent Adam Roof detailed a meeting of the city council’s Public Safety Committee held with dispatch center organizers.  “This regional committee has determined that a regional dispatch center with a 911 call center included can improve the response time for many 911 calls. Additional benefits of this model as presented include enhancement of mutual aid.  In our committee we heard concerns from a group of dispatchers.”  

Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo told city councilors the current 911 system is inadequate.  “It’s time that we build a professional system that does two things: get citizens the help that they need immediately without relying on a rural system to do it. And number two when my cops need help, or any cop in this region needs help, I want them to get it right away.  And right now that’s not going to happen when we’re fidgeting with channels and hoping dispatchers talk to other dispatchers. It’s got to go out in seconds.”

Ward 2 Progressive Max Tracy questioned why city police are supporting dispatchers in opposing the regional center.  “If this is an issue of their own safety why would they be choosing to put themselves at greater risk and come out in support of the dispatchers?”
DelPozo:  “Their instinct is to help and as the Chief of Police my instinct is to get them all home safe.”  

Dispatcher Kathryn Clark explained that she and her peers have misgivings about the lack of details regarding the proposed dispatch center.  “We are not against regional dispatch as a whole. It’s just we are very uncomfortable with the current plan or rather lack thereof.  Because it’s..we are very focused on the operational side because that’s our day to day life. That’s what we’re focused on we need to know. And that’s the part that we unfortunately don’t know at this stage and won’t know from what it sounds like for a while.  So we’re not just saying no to say no because we want to be in opposition. We’re just concerned.”

Roof reminded his fellow councilors that a vote on the resolution would not reflect support or opposition for the concept of a regional dispatch center.  "Tonight’s vote is about moving the question to the ballot and giving the voting public an opportunity to fully participate in the discussion. If the voters vote yes in addition to guaranteeing the inclusion of our dispatchers in the process the city council will still need to vote as to whether or not to actually join the municipal union.”

In the end, city councilors approved the resolution 11-1 to place the question on the March 6th Town Meeting Day ballot.