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Fate of police dispatch looms

STEVE REID
Editor & Publisher
sreid@lbknews.com

One thing is elemental on Longboat Key: residents demand highly trained medical and police personnel and want them dispatched quickly and efficiently.

To ensure that these goals continue to be met, the town will face on Monday what could be a monumental change in how it goes about sending emergency personnel when called upon.

The Town Commission will entertain the idea of moving all dispatch for police emergency and non-emergency calls off of the island and will consider proposals by both Sarasota and Manatee County to take on the task, but with distinctly different approaches.

For the past three years, the town has been undergoing due diligence as to whether it would be wise to accept an offer by Sarasota County and its Sheriff’s Department to handle all dispatching for both Longboat Key Fire and Police, emergency and non-emergency calls, at the County’s new emergency operations center.

Sarasota has left the offer open because the town has several concerns; mainly whether the county would provide the customized and personalized dispatching for the preponderance of non-emergency police calls received throughout the year.

 

Customized response

The numbers tell the story. Last year, 1,619 non-emergency police calls originated on Longboat Key, while only 529 emergency calls were made. Longboat Key Police and dispatch have grown synonymous with personalized service that exceeds what the Sheriff’s Department provides to residents in the unincorporated county.

But if the county were to take over dispatch, Sheriff Tom Knight says the town can set the protocols for his dispatchers to accept any level of call and stay on the line and dispatch Longboat Police in the exact same manner as is done today.

Currently, and for previous decades, Longboat Key has staffed its own police station with its own dispatchers 24 hours a day, seven days per week. When an emergency call is placed using 911 on Longboat Key, the call today goes to Manatee County Emergency Communications Center, which dispatches Fire emergencies, but routes the call to Longboat Key dispatch for Police emergencies and non-emergencies.

Manatee County is also proposing to the town in that it is in the process of upgrading its technology and wishes to continue dispatching the Fire, as well as continue to take the initial 911 call and transfer it to Longboat dispatch.

 

No wrong decision…

“This will not be an easy policy decision,” said Town Manager Dave Bullock.

But Bullock added that either option — moving both Fire and Police to Sarasota County and ending all Longboat Key dispatch or upgrading technology and using Manatee County for 911 calls, or any combination, will work at a high level for Longboat Key residents.

“Either way, we do not have an option of simply leaving things the way they are. All of the technology in the cars and in the dispatch process is being upgraded and will continue to be. From an emergency standpoint, there is no wrong decision here. Both Manatee and Sarasota dispatch centers have taken millions of calls and they know how to handle dispatch. The easy part is the emergency side of this. The decision really is how we want to handle the request for non-emergency calls,” said Bullock.

Fire Chief Paul Dezzi recommends the town utilize Sarasota County for dispatching 911 Fire and EMS emergencies. Part of his argument is because Sarasota County dispatches its Fire and medical emergencies in a consolidated fashion. Manatee County uses separate dispatch for emergency, medical calls and another dispatch for fire emergencies. Longboat Key, unlike Manatee County, mans its fire response and fire trucks with EMTs and trained paramedics and the consolidation being offered by Sarasota County can lessen the chance of calls going awry.

 

Cost, gains in loss of dispatch

But if the police were to go to Sarasota County, the town would have to close its dispatch center and the police station would no longer be open 24 hours per day and end its function as a safe place for residents and visitors in distress. If the town continues with Manatee County, it would retain those functions.

If the police do go to Sarasota County, the advantage is primarily through cost savings through eliminating the dispatch department which would save the town $200,000 to $300,000 per year. Part of the fear is that what is gained financially would be lost in control of the dispatch department and the dispatchers could not be trained specifically to understand Longboat Key intimately and be trained to deal specifically with the demographic and the type of response that could be dictated if the service remains in-house.

Another consideration is that the cost of monitoring and implementing information gained from the town’s license plate recognition cameras that are on both ends of the Key. Currently, Longboat Key dispatch handles this function whereas the cost and ability to implement this program is in the discussion phase with the Sheriff.

 

Chief: keep dispatch here

Longboat Key Police Chief Pete Cumming recommends that the town keep its existing dispatch department and allow Manatee County to continue taking the 911 calls. Cumming stresses that Longboat dispatchers would remain as the point of contact with any and all callers needing assistance in all police situations. He added that it is important for Longboaters to know that their non-emergency calls will be answered utilizing the current seven-digit police department phone number, 24 hours a day, seven days per week. Cumming also says that if there is an emergency and an arrest is made, because there would be no dispatchers on Longboat Key if the operation were moved to Sarasota County, a second officer would have to come off of patrol for security purposes during the arrest.

Finally, Cumming said that the police building would also remain a safe place for anyone needing any type of assistance ranging from a victim of domestic violence looking for protection, to the harboring of a lost or found pet.

Bullock told Longboat Key News on Friday afternoon, that he is still weighing the cost and options before making a final recommendation at the upcoming Monday regular commission workshop. He said the decision really comes down to whether the cost savings in going to Sarasota County outweighs the ability to manage and run Longboat’s own dispatch center and the knowledge Longboat dispatchers develop with the needs of the island.

Bullock said an advantage to Sarasota County is it is a large operation with more resources and lots of backup. But again, he said if the cost saving falls below a certain point, it may not be the best choice.

The Town Commission will discuss the topic on Monday, March 23 at 1 p.m. in Town Hall at the Regular Commission Workshop.

 

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