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Some concerns linger in Johnson County emergency facility’s second year

BY BRIAN ALBERT | JULY 07, 2011 7:20 AM

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After a controversial first year, Joint Emergency Communications Center officials say they plan to continue striving toward a quick, reliable operation for Johnson County.

Several officials, including county Supervisor Pat Harney, the chairman of the Joint Emergency Communications Center policy board, said many of last year’s issues stemmed from unavoidable bumps that come with consolidation and new equipment.

“We’re always shooting for smoother operation,” Harney said. “Throughout the first year we were getting new people together and learning a different system. Now communications center workers have a grasp, and we’re really beginning to see people excel in their professionalism.”

The center, which houses all of the county’s public-safety dispatchers except for the University of Iowa, opened in July 2010. It is managed by a seven-person policy board and an executive director, Gary Albrecht. It has since come under fire for budgeting issues, management problems, and delays regarding dispatcher processing.

For fiscal 2012, the program will be funded just under $3 million. The group had proposed a budget of $3.3 million, funded by the county’s taxpayers.

“There were some problems with processing times for calls early on … these have been improved with software upgrades,” said Iowa City City Councilor Mike Wright, a member of the center’s policy board. “I’d anticipate [we] will continue to refine operations and try to get into a steady rhythm.”

But county Supervisor Janelle Rettig said she hopes to see greater staffing efficiency, as well as a shift to local agencies for essential business needs in the future.

“We didn’t see any savings in staffing by combining two dispatches into one,” Rettig said. “When you consolidate, you should expect that to happen. [The center] looks outside Johnson County for its human resources, insurance, and legal needs. When that’s hired outside, it costs extra money.”

Rettig noted that because the center is funded almost entirely by Johnson County taxpayers, higher costs affect thousands of county residents.

City Councilor Connie Champion said she remains unenthusiastic about the center and believes there are “several budget issues” still in need of addressing.

“It would be nice if we could get something good started there, but things aren’t very promising,” she said.

Still, center officials are tackling issues, including the confusion caused by the meshing of different communication styles. Coralville police, for example, are accustomed to the traditional 10-code, and other entities may prefer different methods. As a result, the center’s channels require use of common chat.

“As we push forward with this goal of true interoperability, we have to remember that we’re not always talking to police departments anymore,” said Coralville Police Chief Barry Bedford. “We might have wreckers or fire guys who all speak in different codes. And we used to have maybe 10 people on a channel. Now, you might have up to 60.”

Iowa City police Capt. Rick Wyss seconded Bedford’s thoughts.

“When you combine all these different agencies, trying to find a consistent method of dispatching through all of them is difficult,” said Wyss. “We’ll likely see growth in this area over the next year.”


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