Posted Online: Dec. 08, 2012, 10:45 pm

RI County seeks to consolidate emergency communication services

Comment on this story

By Stephen Elliott

A $150,000 grant will be used by Rock Island County public safety agencies to develop a plan for a potential consolidation of emergency communication services.

Although the grant is being awarded to Rock Island County, it is jointly supported by the mayors of Rock Island, Moline, East Moline, Silvis and Milan. These five communities operate four of the six Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) in the county, according to Rock Island County Emergency Telephone System Board chairman Steve Seiver.

Moline and East Moline share operations at one location, Centre Station. The other two PSAPs are operated by the Rock Island County Sheriff's Office and the Rock Island Arsenal.

Denise Bulat, Bi-State Regional Commission executive director, said the commission has provided grant writing and technical oversight for the grant and future study.

"The grant dollars are for up to $150,000 to fund a consultant to develop a plan which will address future emergency communication response needs as identified in the Rock Island County Comprehensive and Hazard Mitigation Plans," Ms. Bulat wrote via email.

"The plan will ensure next steps and projects will move the six participating jurisdictions toward hardened emergency facilities for safety response and the most efficient Illinois Quad City system of emergency communications."

Ms. Bulat said the county is completing paperwork so a steering committee can begin to procure a consultant. Ms. Bulat said the procurement process is likely to begin in early 2013.

Scott County unveiled a $28 million Scott County Emergency Communications Center in March 2011 in an effort to provide a unified emergency communications center for all police, fire and ambulance services in the county.

That system is still being tweaked amid complaints from law enforcement officials of problems with record keeping. Brian Hitchcock, director of the Scott County Center, acknowledged there are problems, but said the system is improving.

"Most of our problems came in from officers doing reports in the field on laptops," Mr. Hitchcock said. "Most of the issues have been worked out. We anticipate some improvements in the near future."

Mr. Hitchcock said consolidation is nothing new.

"We've seen a number of consolidations across the country," Mr. Hitchcock said. "It gives us synergy we didn't have before. More people are capable of handling large scale situations.

"You have all (your people) in one area versus three or four separate areas."

Mr. Seiver, chairman of the Rock Island County Emergency Telephone System Board, the agency overseeing the 911 system countywide, has said the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies have indicated favoring consolidated approaches, such as the bunker-type building Scott County uses for its emergency services.

Moline Police Chief Kim Hankins said there are positives and negatives to a consolidated communications system.

"If you do full consolidation, you do give up a little bit of control to the board that runs the system," Chief Hankins said. "Where you gain is a larger pool of individuals working towards the same goal whereas today, we all have our own dispatch system with the exception of Moline and East Moline.

"We have Centre Station."

Chief Hankins said a consolidated communications system puts everyone on a compatible radio system.

Mr. Seiver, who serves as Milan's village administrator, helped create Rock Island County's 911 system, first used in 1980. A decade later, enhanced 911 service was offered in the county.

In Rock Island County, dispatching services are spread among area law enforcement agencies despite efforts dating back to the 1970s to consolidate them. None have lasted for long.

Mr. Seiver said there are misconceptions about the current communication system. He said although 911 wireless, VOiP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) and landline calls are taken at six PSAPs, all are a part of an advanced, redundant and functionally consolidated operation dealing with phone, data and radio systems.

But, Mr. Seiver said one of the most frequently cited shortcomings involve radio communications.

"Public safety agencies in Rock Island County use a variety of VHF, UHF and trunked radio systems," Mr. Seiver said via email. "While this condition is common throughout the nation, these issues of radio interoperability affect emergency service personnel, their agencies and the PSAPs that dispatch for them.

"Efforts (especially over the last decade since 9/11) to improve radio interoperability have helped, but it's still a significant issue in providing emergency services and in protecting the safety of the emergency personnel themselves."

Mr. Seiver said there is no mandate driving the study. He said 911 is based on 1960s telephony.

"It never anticipated social media and texting and streaming video and voice over and all of the changes in technology," he said. "What's coming down the pike is the industry is trying to solve all those problems.

"It's called next generation 911. In the Illinois Quad-Cities, the added ingredient is of multiple agencies involved, not just one core city. There is coordination and cooperation between different dispatch centers and different emergency service providers.

"What's driving this (study) is a desire to provide the highest quality of services we can afford."