Essential public service: Improve our 911 abilities

All of Savannah and Chatham County, including the smaller municipalities that choose to participate, should have the most efficient and effective centralized 911 emergency call and dispatching center that’s available.

All participating local governments should contribute their fair share of revenues to operate this E911 center, where dispatchers would send police officers, firefighters and medical technicians on emergency calls. This is an essential public service and should not be used as a political bargaining chip.

Currently, all telephone and cellphone customers pay an additional monthly fee on their phone bills to pay for the E911 center, now operated by the city. But those fees don’t cover the entire operating costs. The city, in fact, kicked in an additional $2.3 million last year to keep the center in business. That $2.3-million subsidy is now the focus of a political debate about the center’s future, including who’s in charge and who pays what.

Chatham County Commission Chairman Al Scott said he understands the city’s position in not wanting to continue the subsidy and suggested the county may be in a better position to operate this service.

He may be right. It should be up for discussion. But ultimately, which government entity controls and operates this center is less important than making sure that it is professionally run and that costs are fairly split among all participants.

Indeed, when someone is suffering from a heart attack or stroke or their house is burning down, the main thing they care about is getting help right away. They don’t care if that call comes from a city-run or a county-run call center or if each call costs a few extra bucks.

Earlier this month, an advisory board made up of leaders from multiple Chatham County emergency response agencies asked the city of Savannah to consider relinquishing control of the local 911 call center and support the creation of a new, wholly independent center for 911 dispatch.

In a letter sent to Savannah City Manager Rob Hernandez on Aug. 4, Pooler Police Chief Mark Revenew, the chairman of the Chatham County E911 Advisory Committee, said his group unanimously agreed to make the recommendation at a meeting the day before with city and county administrators, police and fire chiefs and the Savannah-Chatham police department’s E911 commander and managers.

“(We) respectfully recommend the city of Savannah give consideration to the creation of an independent E911 Emergency Communications Center,” Chief Revenew wrote. “Everyone in attendance agreed that an independent E911 ECC would be in the best interests of public safety within the entire Chatham County.”

Coincidentally, the chief’s recommendation seems well timed, as the city appears to be moving in the direction of forming an independent 911 center. Indeed, the city decided Aug. 3 to adopt a new organizational chart that makes E911 independent from the police department.

These developments are related to the proposed break-up of the merged city-county police department, an impending divorce that is forcing city and county leaders to take hard looks at the costs of running two separate departments.

Take the centralized 911 emergency dispatch center — the creation of one single call center where police, fire and ambulance services are dispatched was one of the great advantages of having a merged Metro department, one that helped save lives and put public services to efficient use.

It’s in the public’s interest that such a single call center survive whether Metro cracks up or not.

Savannah’s city manager has stepped up and expressed a willingness on the city’s part to keep this center going, but he has said city taxpayers would no longer subsidize the costs of other municipalities that don’t pay their fair share.

Those municipalities include Pooler, Thunderbolt, Port Wentworth, Garden City and Bloomingdale. Tybee Island has chosen not to participate and handles its own 911 dispatching.

Mr. Hernandez is only being fair. Likewise, in return for their revenue, residents in those participating municipalities should be able to count on quick and efficient responses by public safety workers during emergencies.

Chief Revenew is concerned that the existing arrangement may not be ideal. He pointed to an independent study of the emergency system in 2011, which noted a lack of expertise among Metro dispatchers who handle fire and ambulance calls, causing life-threatening delays. If that’s the case, such a result is unacceptable.

There are numerous benefits to having a consolidated 911 call center including reduced call and dispatch processing times. This issue isn’t complicated: It’s all about saving life and property.

Savannah Mayor Eddie DeLoach said he supports establishing E911 as a stand-alone operation or putting it under the county’s purview.

“I’d say it’s early, but it’s probably as solid a thing as any that gets done,” he said last week. “We have to improve our 911 abilities.”

The mayor is right.

It’s critical to keep the 911 center intact. It’s a bargain that pays off in terms of more efficient dispatching, which saves lives and property. This is an essential public service that must be maintained and improved.