Safety, Job-Loss Concerns Cited By Opponents to Proposal
By Lucas Guard
Reporter, The Brentwood Spirit
Brentwood officials are considering a controversial proposal to outsource the city’s fire and police dispatch to the East Central Dispatch Center.
No vote on the proposal was taken in the closed-door session of the Board of Aldermen on Jan. 14. However, city officials have confirmed that the proposal is still being considered and could be brought up for a vote in the immediate future.
Employees of the City of Brentwood currently handle dispatch of emergency crews for both Brentwood and the City of Rock Hill. Seven full-time and four part-time dispatchers work shifts at the Brentwood facility located within the police headquarters near the intersection of Hanley Road and Strassner Drive. The East Central Dispatch Center proposal would shift those responsibilities to the ECDC dispatch facility in Richmond Heights.
ECDC Serves Clayton, Others
ECDC is a nonprofit corporation created in 2003. Its purpose is to make technologically advanced dispatch affordable by spreading the cost between multiple cities. It currently provides dispatch for Clayton, Maplewood, Olivette, Richmond Heights, Shrewsbury and Webster Groves. ECDC is managed by officials from the cities it serves. It submitted its consolidation proposal to Brentwood in Nov. 2013.
Some Brentwood officials and residents have expressed concern over the possible safety effects of consolidating with ECDC.
In an interview with the Brentwood Spirit, Alderwoman Cindy Manestar said that consolidation could reduce dispatcher familiarity with Brentwood geography and emergency response resources. She also said that it could increase the ratio of dispatchers to emergency personnel. Ultimately this could lead to delays in emergency response times and result in increased risk to emergency personnel.
“While I can’t speak for anyone,” said Manestar, “I believe that the majority of officers want to keep the dispatchers they have.”
Mayor Pat Kelly agreed that the focus should be on safety.
“We need to determine what’s in the best interest of our residents and public service employees,” Kelly said. “We should be able to pay what it costs to have the best system.”
Kelly declined to take a position on the ECDC proposal at this time, stating that he is still evaluating it. However, he noted that lack of communication among emergency crews from different cities has posed major hazards in the past. He recalled the 1996 gasoline tanker fire near the St. Louis Galleria, during which emergency crews from several cities struggled to communicate while containing massive fires and evacuating residents.
Equipment Upgrade Due
The consolidation issue has added urgency because Brentwood’s dispatch facilities are due for an upgrade. To comply with federal mandates, Brentwood needs new equipment with better capabilities to communicate with other cities’ emergency personnel. Informal estimates by city officials put the cost of upgrading Brentwood’s dispatch at around $300,000. That cost has been paid by a county sales tax approved in 2009. However, the money could be repurposed if the upgrades are avoided via consolidation.
City officials have suggested that, because of the upgrade issue, the choice to consolidate or remain independent will lock Brentwood into its chosen policy for years to come.
Similar technological considerations were in play in the early 2000s, when Brentwood first considered joining the ECDC. Brentwood was involved in the initial planning of ECDC, but dropped out of the project before it was implemented. Brentwood had just upgraded its aging dispatch equipment, and city officials decided that the costly equipment should be put to use before consolidation.
Although much of the official ECDC debate turns on safety, there are other serious issues at stake. Residents have worried that the Brentwood dispatchers will lose their jobs. A Facebook page called “SAVE the Brentwood Dispatchers” was created on Jan. 7 and has a following of more than 240 people.
There were similar layoff worries when the ECDC was created in the early 2000s, but job losses were avoided by transferring dispatchers from the member cities to the ECDC itself. It is not publicly known whether similar transfers would save the Brentwood dispatchers.
More broadly, some see the ECDC proposal as part of a trend toward consolidation in the St. Louis metro area. In her interview, Alderwoman Manestar questioned whether this is “the first step in Brentwood losing its identity,” and stated that “this is not the direction most residents want to go in.”