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Regional Public Safety Project Poised for Resurgence—or Dormancy

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The value of uniting police, fire, and ambulance in Central Vermont has been recognized for decades, as the current hodge-podge of local departments and dispatchers does not always produce efficient service and communication.

In 2014, the Legislature chartered the Central Vermont Public Safety Authority (CVPSA) to provide an “affordable, integrated, efficient system of public safety services” to member towns. After five years, a shifting membership, the loss of its director, and rejected proposals, the organization is putting the last of its money toward writing a plan for better regional emergency services communication. What happens next depends on who you talk to: either the plan goes forward, or the organization goes dormant.

In November, the CVPSA released a request for proposals to describe public safety communications problems in the region and present a strategy for solving them. Many problems are already known: limited radio bandwidth for fire and police is eaten up when rural fire departments turn to radios for conversations better suited to the phone but made impossible by spotty cell-phone coverage. Poor coverage also means little-to-no internet access for computers in emergency vehicles. Furthermore, chatter from French-Canadian taxi companies north of the border sometimes bleeds into the conversations and directions of local dispatchers.

The prime example CVPSA advocates use to illustrate complications in today’s dispatch system is a theoretical car crash with injuries near Exit 7 in Berlin. Francis “Paco” Aumand, former director of CVPSA, described what happens when someone calls 9-1-1 to report it.

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The first person to answer is in Williston, who routes it to the State Police dispatcher, also in Williston. The call also goes to Montpelier’s dispatchers, who notify Berlin Fire Department. For the ambulance, the call goes to Hyde Park, where the Lamoille County Sheriff’s Department dispatches the Barre Town Ambulance, which serves Berlin’s emergency medical needs.

With less than $40,000 remaining in the organization’s coffers, CVPSA board members hope they can select a proposal that meets their needs with the money on hand. If not, they’re prepared to ask for further funding from their two member cities, Montpelier and Barre—and it’s Montpelier’s turn to pay into the kitty, according to board chair and Montpelier resident Kim Cheney.

The CVPSA started with four member municipalities, but Barre Town and Berlin dropped out early, leaving Barre City and Montpelier. Then, in 2018, Capital Fire Mutual Aid System, Inc. joined, representing fire departments in the region. By that time, the broad focus on creating a regional public safety entity had narrowed to centralizing dispatch services.

The CVPSA has developed multiple proposals for simplifying regional dispatch by merging operations in Montpelier and Barre City. Currently, Montpelier dispatches for its own public safety entities, plus fire departments serving approximately 21 towns in the region. Barre City dispatches for their own fire, police, and ambulance, the Washington County Sheriff’s Department, and two local town departments.

One proposal from CVPSA would have kept two dispatching centers but made them interchangeable, so one could be used if the other went down in a flood, fire, or other disaster. In November 2018, a joint meeting of the Barre and Montpelier city councils considered a proposal to create a joint dispatching center. Both councils rejected the proposal.

Barre City manager Steve MacKenzie said costs were the biggest problem. Not only would it cost $400,000–$500,000 to move out of the current public safety building, he said, but they’d lose some efficiencies currently in their system.

The county jail is in the dispatch building, and dispatchers can also monitor inmates. “If we chose to get out of housing the local jail, we lose $10,000 annually in revenue,” MacKenzie said, “and the chief figured we would incur another $80,000 in transport costs, taking our prisoners to St. Johnsbury.”

Montpelier Mayor Anne Watson said in an email, “I was interested in continuing the discussion but interested in fleshing the details out. [Barre mayor] Lucas Herring agreed that more discussion was needed.”

Advocates for the CVPSA didn’t see much of an open door for further discussion. Cheney said, “The cities didn’t even read the proposal. They paid no attention to it.” Dona Bate, a Montpelier city councilor and CVPSA board member, said, “I never felt the council had truly studied the reports.”

Nonetheless, the authority claims several accomplishments during its five-year life: increased training for Montpelier and Barre dispatchers, including bringing the towns’ communications equipment and dispatch language closer together, and increased awareness of gaps in public safety communications.

Some, like Mackenzie, think the CVPSA could go dormant until the time is ripe for its ideas. Others, like citizen activist Stephen Whitaker of Montpelier, want them to take the report produced as a result of the current RFP and start to work on the strategy outlined right away. Cheney takes more of a middle ground: if the CVPSA has a future, he said, it will be with a new board, with any projects to wait until the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2021.

The deadline for responding to the CVPSA’s request for proposals with a letter of interest is December 5, and the proposal is due by 5 pm December 19.