Sub base 911 calls will go to Virginia dispatcher

Groton — Starting Sept. 20, when you call 911 on the Naval Submarine Base you'll get a dispatcher in Norfolk, Va.

The move is part of a Navy-wide consolidation of dispatch centers to save money and streamline equipment maintenance and personnel training.

Locally, the consolidation has raised some concerns.

Joe Dolan, a police officer at the base and president of the union that represents more than 400 government services employees there, including about 10 civilians who work at the dispatch center, said he's worried that response times could increase.

"Over the course of the last several years, we've had numerous overdoses, sailors contemplating suicide, heart attacks and any kind of delayed response to something of that nature could have catastrophic results," he said.

Through dispatch, sub base security receives about 450 calls a day, and the fire department receives about 50. Obviously, not every call coming through is an actual emergency.

The consolidation will eliminate local dispatch jobs. Some of the local dispatchers were working on a temporary basis knowing that the consolidation was coming. Others are planning to retire or look for opportunities at the regionalized dispatch center in Norfolk, which will answer calls and dispatch services from bases throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.

Overall the Navy "has seen improvements through the standardization and alignment of emergency response, without compromising safety or mission effectiveness," sub base spokesman Chris Zendan said.

Still, Dolan is concerned that dispatchers in Norfolk won't have a local knowledge of the sub base, and that could lead to problems given many people who call 911 don't give their exact location but rather a landmark.

"On a 700-acre base, dispatch knows where they're talking about," he said.

He recalled responding to a motor vehicle accident in which the driver was in cardiac arrest. He was there within minutes, he said, even though the caller didn't provide the right name of the street.

In a situation that requires aid from other area fire and police departments, he has concerns about a dispatcher in Norfolk coordinating such a complicated response.

"You cannot have confusion in communication and there is, in my opinion, no way that Norfolk, Virginia, 500 miles away, can possibly deliver the level of care and protection that we do here at local level," Dolan said.

Across the Navy, some 50 local installation dispatch centers were consolidated into five regional centers, according to Zendan, spokesman for the sub base. Dispatch center manning has been reduced from 800 to 371 personnel, he added, and the Navy now uses industry equipment and follows industry training standards.

Naval Station Newport in Rhode Island made the switch a few weeks ago and it's not going well, according to Jordan Pacheco, president of the police union on that base. Pacheco said dispatch times have been delayed because the dispatchers in Norfolk aren't familiar with the base.

There have been several mishaps, the worst of which involved an older female who was having a heart attack and it took more than 35 minutes to respond because dispatchers in Norfolk didn't know exactly where she was located, or what building to dispatch personnel to, Pacheco said. The woman survived, he added.

John Dwire Jr., president of the firefighters union at the sub base in Groton, said he wants to maintain the current level of service and response times.

Other base fire departments have made the switch, and there have been a few hiccups with response times and calls being delayed, he said. Those issues have been identified and are in the process of getting resolved, he said.

A thesis published in 2014 by a student of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., looked at the consolidation of civilian dispatch centers and found that consolidation of 911 centers, particularly at the small to mid-size level, can result in improved efficiency and reduced costs in the long term.

In Connecticut, state police attempted to consolidate its emergency dispatchers into regional call centers. The consolidation was widely criticized and, after a yearlong review, state police decided to abandon the plan.

j.bergman@theday.com

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