Merging the two emergency dispatch centers that serve Snohomish County would save money and also solve a potential public safety issue related to call transfers between the two. That’s the word from representatives of a joint task force studying the issue, who provided an updated on merger talks during the Mountlake Terrace City Council’s March 31 work/study session.
Speakers included Terry Peterson, director of the SNOCOM 9-1-1, which serves South Snohomish County; Kurt Mills, Executive Director of SNOPAC 9-1-1, serving north county; and Karen Reed, a consultant who is facilitating the merger discussion.
Both SNOCOM, located in Mountlake Terrace, and SNOPAC, in Everett, were founded in the 1970s and are staffed 24 hours a day to answer police, fire and related emergency calls. SNOCOM serves roughly 30 percent of Snohomish County’s population while SNOPAC serves about 70 percent, Peterson said.
Why are the two agencies considering a merger? Pointing to a map of both agencies’ service areas displayed in the council chambers, Peterson noted that in the blue area — served jointly by SNOCOM and SNOPAC, “there’s a pretty serious service deficiency that’s been occurring for some time.”
When the two agencies were formed, leaders decided to route emergency calls based on geography, “and it wasn’t the best decision,” Peterson said. Pointing to a red line on the map, he explained that all calls coming from the south side of the line are routed to SNOCOM, while all calls on the line’s north side are routed to SNOPAC.
“The problem is, because SNOCOM dispatches fire for that area and SNOPAC dispatches police, there’s a resulting call transfer that occurs and that happens around 45,000 to 50,000 times per year,” Peterson said. As a result, callers are put on hold during the transfer process, for an average of 21 seconds per year for a total of about 11 days worth of hold time per year.
In addition, “0ne out of every five calls that SNOCOM receives is transferred to SNOPAC, and one out of about every 50 calls that SNOPAC receives is transferred to SNOCOM,” Peterson explained. The reason for the discrepancy is because SNOCOM only handles fire dispatches, and that accounts for just 15 percent of calls for service. The bulk of the calls — 85 percent — are for law enforcement, including the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, and those are handled by SNOPAC.
Discussions regarding a possible merger have been going on for years. In 2015, Snohomish County commissioned a study that recommended the two entities — which represent a total of 53 agencies — be combined.
According to Mills, a joint task force on the consolidation has been reviewing the issue more closely for the past eight months. Also on the task force is a representative of the Snohomish County Emergency Radio System (SERS), which provides radio services for police and fire. Should there be a consolidation, the question of whether SERS should be part of that new entity will also need to be addressed.
Compared to other systems both regionally and nationally, the two call centers are unique in that they both use the same type of computer systems and technology, so personnel from SNOCOM or SNOPAC can easily back each other up when moving from one call center to the other. “At the flip of a switch, we can route the calls to the other center,” Mills said.
The task force looked at 10-year budget forecasts using options involving full consolidation as well as those that would improve service while maintaining stand-alone operations. “With the fully consolidated model, we believe there’s a potential savings of at least a million dollars annually,” Peterson said. Consolidation is the only option that completely resolves the transfer issue, he added.
Consultant Karen Reed talked about possible options for governance if the two agencies are consolidated, since each has separate boards. A total of three options are out for review and the hope is to have additional discussion about them at a task force meeting later in April, Reed said.
According to SNOPAC’s Mills, a consolidated SNOCOM/SNOPAC call center would end up serving a population of about 745,000 and would receive $6.2 million in revenue from the participating entities (each of the 54 participants pay a fee to their respective call center to cover the service).
The bulk of the potential savings comes in the combined staffing model — the task force estimates the merged agency can operate with 15 fewer FTEs (11 dispatchers and four supervisors) than they do today.
When you add up the savings for salary and benefits, it’s about $1.3 million annually, Mills said. Labor savings would be achieved over time through attrition and not through layoffs.
If a merger occurred, the SNOPAC call center — located in the same building as the Everett Police Department South Precinct — is large enough to accommodate both operations for the next 10 years. Additional parking would be required, as would renovation of vacant building space for additional offices.
The task force has recommended keeping the SNOCOM facility as a “warm backup” so it could be used in case of emergencies, at a cost of about $200,000 annually, which brings the total savings — with reduced FTEs — to about $1.1 million. He defined a warm backup as maintaining the Mountlake Terrace location as it is, with existing equipment and a functioning power and water supply — but without employees.
If in an emergency the combined SNOPAC/SNOCOM needed to evacuate the SNOPAC facility, employees “would relocate down to SNOCOM and it would be ready for them,” he said.
There are also one-time estimated transition costs associated with the merger ranging from $820,000 to $1.5 million. How those one-time costs would be funded has not yet been determined, Peterson said.
Due to the predicted cost savings due to the merger, it’s estimated that the City of Mountlake Terrace would see its annual assessment for police and fire dispatch lowered by 21 percent, Peterson said.
As for next steps, Thursday night’s appearance in Mountlake Terrace is one of many briefings that Peterson, Mills and Reed are making before city councils and other affected agencies in the next few months. (Locally, the trio is scheduled to present to the Lynnwood City Council April 3 and the Edmonds City Council April 4.)
The task force has asked the finance officials of the affected agencies to review related financial documents, and over the summer a new interlocal agreement — along with a transition budget and timeline — will be prepared. If all goes well, in late 2017 affected agencies will receive another briefing along with a proposed agreement.
The new combined agency could start work by June 2018, Peterson said.
— Story and photo by Teresa Wippel