Cape May County study backs consolidated dispatch

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MIDDLE TOWNSHIP – Consolidation of the county’s emergency dispatch has languished for 25 years.

The idea came up again and again, but municipal governments didn’t seem interested.

This year, things seem to be taking shape.

Stone Harbor and Avalon have already consolidated their telecommunications with the county’s emergency management dispatch. The county began taking care of fire and emergency medical services calls for the two barrier islands on Jan. 6.

That may be just the beginning. This week, the Cape May County government released a study conducted by Intertech Associates Inc. of Monmouth County that recommends a partial consolidation, meaning a center located in the middle of Cape May County that would serve some of the mainland and barrier islands for emergency dispatch. For a copy of the study, click here.

Centralized dispatch would enhance public safety and bring a cost savings, according to Cape May County Emergency Management Director Martin Pagliughi.

Pagliughi is also Avalon’s mayor.

A committee will be formed to see what municipalities are interested in participating in a centralized dispatching service, Pagliughi said.

“I think it’s the future, to be very honest about it,” Cape May County Freeholder director Gerald Thornton said in an interview Thursday.

He says the concept makes financial sense and is efficient. Pagliughi said a consolidated dispatch would reduce taxes.

Under the plan, calls for fire, rescue and police would be channeled through a consolidated dispatch center. The municipalities spend more than $6.5 million on the 12 dispatching centers, with 59 full-time employees and 40 part-timers.

Instead, seven municipalities that join the effort initially could see a total savings of $7 million within five years. That type of center would include 13 full-time employees and eight part-timers, and the facility would include Cape May, Wildwood, Stone Harbor, Avalon, Middle Township, Lower Township and the county’s Cape May County Emergency Management Communications Center.

The number of current dispatch employees could be reduced through attrition, Thornton said. Some current employees would be brought on to work at the consolidated center, Pagliughi said in an interview Friday. There’s no location for a center yet.

The study also includes a single-site countywide consolidation center, which would bring a savings of $16 million within five years. That’s if all 16 municipalities in the county sign onto the concept. That’s not likely, however, according to the study.

A consolidated dispatch could be phased in over three, four or five years. That would make the municipalities more comfortable about the transition and would be efficient for Cape May County, according to Thornton.

“There are a lot of questions that have to be answered,” Middle Township Police Chief Christopher Leusner said in an interview Friday.

He said the idea for a centralized dispatch is a good one.

A committee is also expected to be formed. The preliminary advisory would begin looking into start-up costs, location, services, inter-local agreements and other issues.

Thornton said that the county would cover some of the costs for centralized dispatch system, which could include a new building. Local governments would need to upgrade equipment as well.

“I think it deserves further consideration, further study,” Leusner said.

If there’s a centralized dispatch system, he is hoping for an improved communications in Middle Township. He said the current system, while operating better than in past years, has dead spots. Police officers have a difficult time communicating from some buildings in the southern end of the municipality, he said.

Emergency communications need to be improved countywide, Pagliughi indicated. For example, he said, in some cases, police in one municipality cannot hear the radio messages from another.

The idea to consolidate services dates back 25 years or more, when he lobbied the concept as a county freeholder to municipalities. The county had an approximately $500,000 federal grant that would fund such an effort, but officials ended up losing the money.

“I’ve always felt it was a good idea,” Thornton said.

A study got underway in 2008, but garnered little interest from municipalities, partly because of having a mandatory sign up to the countywide dispatch center.

The more comprehensive, eight-month study cost about $104,000 and partly was paid through a state grant, according to Pagliughi.

Avalon and Stone Harbor’s foray into consolidating their dispatching kicked off in January. A three-year contract transfers Stone Harbor’s dispatch services to Avalon.

Under the agreement, Stone Harbor will pay Avalon $275,000 beginning this year, with a 2-percent annual increase in payments in 2015 and 2016. Stone Harbor is expected to save $187,000 in dispatching expenses, while Avalon is expected to save $184,000, according to Pagliughi.

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