March 23 • 08:58 PM

Crash course for 911 system?

Officials discuss potential consequences of emergency dispatch failure

December 02, 2009
LAPEER COUNTY — Following the recent defeat of a ballot proposal to fund a digital E-911 system, the county's Central Dispatch Authority is looking at strategies to deal with the possible breakdown of the existing analog system.

On Nov. 3, county residents rejected a plan to spend about $16 million over 10 years for new digital equipment. The measure went down by more than 300 votes.

Lapeer County Central Dispatch Director Vic Martin said the ballot defeat means municipalities will likely have to establish their own contingency plans in the event of an equipment breakdown.

"If this system goes down and we can't find parts, it will be up to them to come up with their own plans," Martin said. "There is nobody out there that has a radio system. We would be dead in the water. Municipalities would have to resort to their own dispatching."

Martin said the county was temporarily without emergency paging and radio systems in late 2008; creating a communication void for local police, fire and EMS personnel.

"At the time, the fire departments had to place their own people at the stations," Martin said. "We're concerned it could happen again."

Martin said the county has since been able to purchase some used equipment to allow communication between cellular towers. If another system failure occurs, he's not so sure used parts will be available.

Imlay City Police dispatcher Vickie Reintjes takes another emergency call. Lapeer County’s E-911 Central Dispatch gets hundreds of calls each day. photo by Tom Wearing.

"We're trying to find some more (used) parts," Martin said. "We had a meeting with Motorola and they're doing what they can to find parts that are compatible with our system. But they're not optimistic. They don't make those parts anymore.

"Even if we can find them, we're talking about used parts," he said. "We don't know how good those parts will be or how long they will last."

Almont Twp. Fire Chief Paul Wayco said he hesitates discussing a contingency plan for the township until he knows more. He said he'd consult with fellow fire officers and seek their input.

"Until we get farther along in the process and study the options, I'd rather not speculate," said Wayco. "Right now, we're all just putting our heads together and trying to come up with a plan. I can tell you it's gonna' be a rough way to go."

Imlay City Fire Chief Kip Reaves said he can't predict the consequences of a 911 radio system breakdown, but expressed a concern.

"Four or five years ago, the tower that activates the fire pagers was hit by lightning," Reaves recalled. "Thus we had no fire pagers to alert us of a fire until it could be fixed.

"Unfortunately, we had a car fire and we had to use telephones to get the information," he said. "We responded but it was not very timely. As a local fire chief, I am very nervous about the possibility of losing that communication link."

Back on ballot in 2010

While municipalities consider their options, the Central Dispatch Authority Board is making plans to place the proposal on the ballot again next November.

On the same ballot, said Martin, residents will be asked to approve a monthly surcharge for 911 operations. Residents are currently paying a per-telephone surcharge of $1.55.

"We're looking at a new surcharge," Martin said. "Based on a law that took effect in June 2008, we could raise the surcharge up to $3 per device. We don't want to go that high."

Martin pointed out that even if the proposal passes in November 2010, it would take at least an additional year-and-a-half to purchase and implement a digital system.

He said the Central Dispatch Authority Board will not meet again until Wed., Dec. 16, at the Central Dispatch building in Lapeer.

Tom Wearing started at the Tri-City Times in 1989, covering the Village of Capac as a beat reporter. He later served stints as assistant editor and editor. Today, he covers Imlay City and Almont as a staff writer. He enjoys music and plays drums and sings with various musical groups in the Detroit Metropolitan area.
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