By REBECCA ISENHART
ROTTERDAM — Imagine this: A plane makes an emergency landing in the Mohawk River. Everyone aboard survives, but they float away from the wreck in all directions, climbing ashore in Niskayuna, Glenville, Schenectady, Rotterdam and beyond.
It’s a fictional example, and an extreme scenario, but it illustrates why it helps to have all 42 of Schenectady County’s emergency dispatchers working from the same building — the Unified Communications Center in Rotterdam, which opened last May.
The UCC combines dispatchers, expertise and information from Glenville, Niskayuna, Schenectady and Rotterdam. It also eliminates the need for the state police to handle emergency calls from the county at its Princetown location. It connects 25 fire departments, seven police departments, and three emergency medical services at one central location.
Before it was completed, the plane-crash scenario would have created a tangled mess of phone calls between emergency personnel all across the county as responders struggled to count the survivors and figure out how to assign the rescue duties. Anthony Jasenski, chairman of the Schenectady County Legislature, used the example to explain the complicated on-air back-and-forth that was necessary before the UCC was created.
“Not one public safety answering point [had] the totality of all the information,” he said. But now, “It’s one-stop shopping. One agency knows everything.”
The agency also shares a database, which makes it much simpler to identify patterns of danger or crime, or simply to make sure a call is quickly and correctly logged and all agencies can get the details they need.
A study, funded with a $99,000 grant from the state, confirmed the value of the UCC concept in 2008.
“This decentralized arrangement has posed challenges resulting in operational inefficiencies, primarily in information sharing,” read the study’s executive summary. The study presented a clear case for creating the UCC, but actually doing so was not easy.
Funding was, of course, the main sticking point. Determining a fair way to share costs among multiple municipalities with different needs is generally a difficult task.
“That was probably one of the biggest hurdles,” said Jeff Cunningham, the UCC’s director.
“No matter which way you split the pie, someone was winning and someone was losing,” said Jasenski, who was chairman of the intergovernmental cooperation committee for the county before becoming Legislature chairman in January 2014. Whether the municipalities were charged based on call volume, population or some other metric, one always felt slighted.
Finding a solution
Ultimately, the committee settled on a way to share savings that was acceptable to all parties. The Maintenance of Effort model uses the amount each party was previously spending on public safety and establishes a proportional formula to distribute savings. Whenever there’s a grant from the state or something costs less than expected, the spoils are spread proportionally between municipalities.
“We knew what everyone was spending,” Jasenski said.
One smaller point of contention arose specific to Glenville and Niskayuna. A dispatcher used to sit inside a vestibule at all hours at both police stations, which allowed people to come in person and ask for help at any time of the day or night.
But since the UCC consolidates all employees in one place, that’s no longer true. In Niskayuna, the dispatcher has been replaced with a phone that pedestrians can use to call 911.
Town Supervisor Joe Landry said the phone doesn’t change the time it takes to make a call, since in the past, the dispatcher would have had to take down a complaint and then call it in.
The only difference, really, is that in the past the person in the vestibule could unlock an inner door to protect someone who felt unsafe, allowing the person to come inside and make a report from a secure space. Niskayuna has solved the problem by allowing the outer door of the vestibule to be locked from the inside.
“We got a little bit of concern about that,” Niskayuna town Supervisor Joe Landry said. “If you are running away from someone
you can lock the outside door.”
The UCC also allows Schenectady to cooperate with two other counties, Albany and Rensselaer, which use the same computer software, called Computer-Aided Dispatch, and offer the same training to their dispatchers. This allows each county to act as a backup for the other two during emergencies, keeping 911 calls from going unanswered.
The UCC’s opening was gradual, as dispatchers from each department took a few weeks to move to the Hamburg Street location and become familiar with the space.
For some, the equipment and software were slightly different than they were used to, but Cunningham said he watched each group gradually iron out their problems within a week or two.
“It’s like going from a Chevy to a Ford,” he said.
Rory Fluman, current chairman of the county’s intergovernmental cooperation committee, said the dispatchers’ efforts to change over to a new system were rewarded with a better workspace and more professional opportunities.
“There’s a little bit of change in your role,” Fluman said. But in exchange, “The dispatchers now have a career ladder,” he added.
Jasenski noted that where municipalities used to compete for the same talent, in the UCC setup, the entire county can benefit from the dispatchers’ skills.
The center’s main goals were twofold: to save money and improve public safety countywide. It’s been fully operational for less than a year, but so far, it seems to be successful.
In addition to improved communication and data sharing, the UCC costs about $750,000 less per year to operate than the combined dispatch budgets of the four municipalities before the UCC opened. For the town of Niskayuna, for example, that translates to a savings of about $149,000.
Fluman said the UCC goes a long way toward helping each municipality meet its requirements for the governor’s tax freeze and property tax cap, allowing the local governments to make sure taxes stay low and homeowners get their rebates.
“The UCC itself is close to making that whole 1 percent possible,” he said.
The cooperative model also makes it easier to apply for future grants from the state, as many require applicants to show how they are working alongside others to spread benefits as far as possible.
It wasn’t simple to combine four distinct workforces into one emergency center.
“It took us longer to do this than it did to fight World War II,” Jasenski said.
But he said, for other counties hoping to try a similar initiative, it’s possible as long as cooperation is the main focus for everyone involved.
“Try to keep the politics out of it as much as possible,” he said.
A new cooperative project is already in the works for the county, though it’s likely pretty far in the future.
“The next thing we’re looking at, we’d like to get a countywide radio system” for the police departments to share, Cunningham said.