$6.9-Million Bond Proposed for 911 Center

By Beacon Staff

No matter the outcome of next month’s bond issue, Flathead County’s antiquated 911 communication system will be improved. The question, emergency coordinators say, is where that new equipment will be housed – and, consequently, how effective it will be.

“We have the federal and state money to make improvements to the system,” Mark Peck, the county’s 911 project coordinator, said. “But the new building is the foundation of what we’re trying to do. We’ve made the effort to get the money for equipment; we need the voters to give it a home, so it works the way it should.”

The Flathead City-County 911 Administrative Board is taking a bond issue of up to $6.9 million to voters on Nov. 4 to merge the county’s four emergency dispatch centers into a new facility in northwest Kalispell.

The 11,800-square-foot building is the lynchpin in a total overhaul of the area’s emergency service system, board members say. “It’s the single most important issue I’ve voted on in my 31 years here and I’m in my third term as a Columbia Falls city councilman,” Michael Shepard, a board member, said.

The new center would handle current and future 911 needs, act as the new emergency operations headquarters for the entire county and bring all emergency personnel and equipment under one roof. The board has approximately $5 million in state and federal funding to overhaul the entire communication system to new state-of-the-art dispatch equipment, including radios and towers.

If the bond fails, the updated equipment for a consolidated dispatch center would be crammed into the basement of the Flathead County Justice Center in Kalispell.

“It’s important for people to understand that they’re not just getting a shell of a building for their money – it’s a complete system that will work for us for a long time,” Peck said.

The construction price tag is purposefully a highball estimate, he added. The board chose the most expensive scenario to account for fluctuations in material costs and to ensure they wouldn’t come up short.

“I can confidently say we’ll come in under the $6.9 million figure,” Peck said. “We didn’t want to get into building and have to come back to voters for more later.”

If passed, the bond issue would mean a $12.48 annual increase in property taxes on a house with a tax-assessed value of $200,000. The bonds, however, wouldn’t be issued until a construction contract is signed and the actual costs of the building determined. If it comes in at a lower amount, the bond amount – and taxes – would be adjusted accordingly.

Construction on the building would begin next spring and likely would take 10 to 12 months.

Currently, whenever someone in the county dials 911, their call goes to the county’s 911 center, which is located in the Sheriff’s Office. While county dispatchers send out medical and fire help anywhere in the county, as well as Sheriff’s deputies, the call center is not entirely consolidated: Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls each have dispatch centers for their own police departments.

When a call comes in from one of the cities, a county dispatcher takes the call and information, then transfers the call to the appropriate city dispatch center, where the caller – after being put on hold – must repeat the information before law enforcement can be sent out.

The extra step means a higher likelihood of dropped calls or confusion and adds valuable minutes in an emergency situation.

“We are not operating at our highest level of efficiency, and in the case of emergencies, that can be a life-or-death situation,” Peck said. “This could cut two to four minutes off response time. That may not sound like much, but when it’s your loved one lying on the floor having a heart attack, it’s forever.”

In some instances, the current 911 system is unable to locate calls coming from cell phones, only the towers from which the signal is coming, causing confusion when callers can’t specify where they are. The system also can’t track resources, follow up on incidents or pinpoint the exact locations of fire and emergency vehicles, Peck said.

Exacerbating all those issues is a surging number of calls.

In 2005, the county 911 center alone responded to 36,216 events; last year, the department tallied 52,023 – about a 44 percent increase over three years. So far this year, the county is on track to reach 60,000 incident calls.

The four centers combined are handling over 100,000 events per year.

The board understands that it’s a difficult financial time to bring a high-priced bond to the public, but points out that the consolidation would cut out management and equipment redundancies, require fewer staff and have a combined budget about $100,000 per year lower than the combined budgets of the four centers.

“Going to the public right now for money is like going to an ex-wife and asking for a date – it’s not a good circumstance,” Peck said. “But this is the biggest public safety issue for the valley in this generation.”