City Council Decision Regarding Dispatch Services
In the last ten years, the West Lake Hills City Council has had a number of discussions regarding how police dispatch services are provided for the West Lake Hills Police Department (PD). Currently, those services are provided by an in-house dispatch department. Most other small to medium size law public safety agencies contract with their county or another (typically larger) agency for dispatch service. Other communities that use this arrangement include Rollingwood PD, Sunset Valley PD, and the Westlake Fire Department. In those City Council discussions, Councilmembers have been interested in determining whether or not an in-house dispatch department is the best way to provide this essential service, or if contracting the service through Travis County would provide a better level of service for West Lake Hills residents.
This issue was again discussed over the course of a number of recent Council meetings. During the Council discussions this summer, Chief Gerdes recommended that the City Council seriously consider transitioning from an in-house dispatch setup to one where dispatch services are provided by the Travis County Sheriff's Office (SO) at the Combined Transportation, Emergency and Communications Center (CTECC). The reasoning behind the Chief's recommendation included the following:
- Faster response times: 911 calls go directly to the Combined Transportation, Emergency and Communications Center (CTECC) and are dispatched from there instead of going from 911 to CTECC to a West Lake Hills dispatcher and then to the officer.
- Access to additional resources: Requests for assistance from other agencies will happen faster. Officers will be able to coordinate with other agencies with much greater ease and efficiency. This will lead to better service to residents and increased officer safety.
- Built in redundancy: Personnel, equipment, utilities, services, etc. will have backup and failsafe mechanisms that are simply not feasible for small dispatch centers. These backup systems help assure that dispatch services are not lost during weather or other emergency events such as power outages, loss of telephone service, etc.
- Cost savings: While this is not the most important factor, there is a significant reduction in costs—approximately $300,000 per year.
In short, he believed that the Police Department will be able to provide better, faster, safer, and more professional service to the residents of West Lake Hills and provide our officers with a much safer working environment if the City contracts with the Travis County Sheriff's Office for dispatch services.
At the October 12, 2016 City Council meeting, the City Council voted to enter into an interlock agreement with Travis County in order have Travis County provide dispatch services to the West Lake Hills Police Department. The transition from in-house service to contracted service will take about six months. The City Council also authorized the execution of retention agreements with the City's four current dispatchers that will incentivize the dispatchers (thought a retention bonus) to stay with the City through the transition to make the change happen as smoothly as possible.
Detailed Discussion of the Issues
When Police Chief Scott Gerdes was hired in March, 2015, he was asked to review all aspects of the Police Department (PD) to see where improvements could be made both to the services delivered to the community and to officer safety. These reviews have resulted in updates to various policies and processes in the PD. One of the areas that he has reviewed is the PD's dispatch section. This is not the first time that there has been discussion in West Lake Hills regarding dispatch services. Past City Council and staff members have had discussions in the past on the topic of whether or not it makes sense for the West Lake Hills PD to continue doing its own dispatch.
In early April, 2015, Chief Gerdes started a conversation with the Travis County Sheriff's Office (SO) to learn how dispatch services are provided to the various law enforcement agencies in central Texas. He learned that the West Lake Hills PD is unique in that it has its own dispatch department rather than contracting with Travis County to provide dispatch services. Almost every other small to medium law enforcement agency in the County contracts with the SO for dispatch services. Other agencies that contract with the SO include Rollingwood PD, Sunset Valley PD, and the Westlake Fire Department. The original focus of the conversation was regarding dispatch software with the goal of seeing is West Lake Hills PD could use the same software as the SO in order to better coordinate services and work with other agencies. What he learned was that there are really two options:
- Option One: Use the same dispatch software as the SO and keep dispatch services in the West Lake Hills PD.
- Option Two: Use the same dispatch software as the SO and contract all dispatch services through the SO.
It turns out that Option One has never been implemented by the SO, so it would take a considerable amount of time and resources to set up. Option Two is what is already being done by most agencies, so it can be implemented fairly quickly and easily. This led to a broader discussion about the best method for providing dispatch services in West Lake Hills.
There are many challenges faced by a dispatch section for a small department. Most of them have to do with redundancy. Small departments must have a minimalist approach to personnel, equipment, and systems. The West Lake Hills Dispatch Department only employs four to five dispatchers, and there is only one dispatcher on duty at any given time. Given the small number of dispatchers, there is no redundancy or extra coverage for when someone calls in sick or when someone leaves the department. There are equipment challenges—if the phones or radios go down, there are not redundant systems like in a larger dispatch operation. Larger dispatch operations have redundant radio and phone systems and even backup operations centers at a different location in order to ensure that dispatch services are never impacted by power outages, loss of telephone services, or even natural disasters. It is not financially feasible for smaller dispatch departments to have that sort of redundancy. Option One would not resolve any of these issues. Option Two would resolve all of them.
Another issue, probably the one that residents are most concerned with, is response time. All 911 calls go to the Combined Transportation, Emergency and Communications Center (CTECC), a partnership between Austin PD, Travis County SO, TXDOT, Cap Metro, and the other smaller agencies using their services. The 911 operators determine where an emergency is located and which agency needs to respond. Under Option One, If the location is in West Lake Hills and if it is a police emergency, they transfer the call to the West Lake Hills dispatcher. One of our dispatchers then answers the phone, takes the information, and dispatches an officer. Under Option Two, all West Lake Hills dispatch services would be handled at CTECC, and the calls could likely be dispatched faster. Coordination between various agencies is also an important aspect of dispatch services. Under Option One, if our officers need assistance, they contact our dispatcher, our dispatcher calls CTECC (since all other agencies use them for dispatch services) and tells them what we need, and the CTECC dispatcher reaches out to the appropriate agency and sends them to our location. If the assisting agency has questions, the process is then reversed. This can cause delays in getting help to our officers, which in turn impacts the response time and effectiveness for residents. Under Option Two, all coordination is handled at CTECC, so it is faster and more efficient.
Finally, for those interested in the financial side of the discussion, Option Two is much more economical than Option One. Contracting with the SO (Option Two) would save the City an estimated $300,000 per year versus continuing with in-house dispatch services (Option One). It is also important to note that unfortunately, contracting out dispatch services would lead to the layoff of the City's four current dispatchers.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. When dispatch services are provided by Travis County, how will things change when I call 911 with an emergency?
If you call 911 with a non-police emergency occurring in West Lake Hills, there will be no change since all non-West Lake Hills PD emergency calls are received and dispatched from CTECC.
Once the transition to having Travis County provide dispatch services is complete, your 911 call will still go to CTECC—just as it does today. The only difference is that the call will be handled at CTECC and West Lake police officers will be dispatched by Travis County instead the call being transferred to a West Lake Hills dispatch center for dispatching.
2. When dispatch services are contracted out, what will happen to the Close Patrol service that the PD currently provides?
The Close Patrol service that is currently provided by the West Lake Hills PD will not change. Residents will still have the option to set up a Close Patrol by filling out a form on the City website or calling the PD during regular office hours.
3. Once dispatch services are contracted out, what will happen if I call the non-emergency PD phone number?
Please remember that all emergency matters should be reported using 911—not the non-emergency phone number.
Residents that call the non-emergency number during regular office hours will speak with the Police Secretary (or someone else in the PD) just as they do today.
Residents that call the non-emergency number after hours will be given the opportunity to do the following: leave a voicemail message for the PD, leave a message for a specific person at the PD, or speak to an officer on duty. The on duty officers will carry a cell phone that will receive those calls. If the officer on duty that is carrying the phone is not able to answer the phone, the caller will be able to leave a voicemail message and the officer on duty would call back as soon as possible. This same procedure has been used successfully at other agencies.
4. Whom can I contact for more information?