Flathead County Continues to Chip Away at 911 System Improvements

By Beacon Staff

Trouble locating calls and dispatching help in the rapidly growing Flathead Valley may be a thing of the past, with Kalispell’s antiquated emergency response system set to go high-tech. The Flathead County Office of Emergency Services took over 911 on Feb. 1, in the first step of consolidation.

“I’m confident that in two years we will have a fully consolidated state of the art dispatch center with the capability of expanding to a regional hub,” Flathead County Emergency Services Director Mark Peck said. “The system we have in place right now is borderline adequate. This will be a quantum leap forward.”

At the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) quarterly meeting Jan. 31, local officials continued to hammer out the long process of updating Flathead County’s emergency response system. Peck outlined the plan to obtain a new computer-aided dispatch system (CAD) and a facility to house it. The committee is currently awaiting approval of an $860,000 firefighter assistance grant that Peck said will pay a significant portion of the new dispatch system. The remaining cost will be paid by capital improvement funds, although the committee continues to search for other ways to raise money.

“The biggest question is how do we fund this?” Peck said.

Potential solutions include: A full mill levy, gap levy or one-time bond levy to fund the new building and infrastructure. Peck’s high-end estimate for the new 6,000-square foot building and land is $2.5 million. So far, two locations with existing structures have been squelched because renovation costs exceed new construction costs. One of the buildings, the Old School Station near Fun Beverage, was ruled out because it lies in the Hungry Horse flood plain.

Two other options exist in north Kalispell: on land next to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and another site near Flathead Valley Community College. Both require new buildings and appraisal. Peck likes that both options offer clear lines of sight from Big Mountain to Blacktail Mountain. New transmission towers will also be placed on Big and Blacktail Mountains, as well as the Kalispell Water Tower.

When new dispatch equipment is received from the Interoperability Montana Project – which seeks to standardize emergency communications across the state – 911 dispatchers will move to the Flathead County Justice Center’s basement until construction of a new building is complete. The committee plans to sell the old dispatch equipment to the state for $600,000.

“This is not a full consolidation or permanent,” Peck said. “But it will allow us a better determination of the true cost of a fully consolidated system. It’s a step in the right direction.”

Dispatchers would be relegated to the basement of the Justice Center for no longer than 18 months, Peck said. Once construction is complete, there will be eight workstations for dispatchers, effectively doubling the work force from the current four who work days and three dispatchers at night. Problems with the current dispatch system stem from its occasional failure to effectively locate callers depending on where they are in the valley, and the multi-step process of entering data and relaying information. Also complicating rescue efforts are multiple roads with the same name, like Flathead County’s three Spring Creek Roads.

“The new CAD will have two major impacts: enhanced response time and enhanced response information,” Peck said. “It will allow us to get the absolute right resources to the right place as rapidly as possible.”

Tracy Finn, a dispatcher of 10 years with Flathead County, says misconceptions persist about the current dispatch system.

“People have a phobia, they think what we have now isn’t working,” she said. “That is not the case, what we have works, it is just cumbersome. It takes a couple more seconds than something new.”

Finn has 17 years of experience dispatching, including several in Biddeford, Maine, where there is an up-to-date CAD.

“A new CAD gives us information instantaneously that takes us three or four steps right now,” Finn said. “Dispatchers are the first responders and a new CAD saves seconds and seconds save lives.”