Destination for Island 911 calls could change again

Since 2004, 911 calls from Mercer Island are answered by someone in Kirkland. If it’s a fire call, they’re transferred to Bellevue’s dispatch center. Where will the calls go next?

All signs point to further changes in how emergency calls are handled on the Eastside. It appears that further consolidation of police and file dispatch services, including those from Mercer Island, is about to occur. Calls from here, along with those from more than a dozen other cities, may be routed to a regional communications center out of Bellevue’s city hall.

The project, called the Northeast King County Regional Communications Center, or NORCOM, will form a nonprofit organization composed of 15 cities and agencies to handle the increasing volume of emergency calls in the Eastside. After the center is operational, other jurisdictions or agencies will be able to join as well.

The total costs to create NORCOM are being evaluated right now, though cities and agencies have already contributed some of the start-up costs. Mercer Island City Council approved spending $5,462 on Feb. 5 to put toward NORCOM’s technology requirements. On June 6, 2004 Council awarded the first payment for NORCOM, $4,119 to help fund a study on NORCOM’s feasibility. Council will decided to commit to the project or abandon it in May when an Interlocal agreement among the cities and agencies is expected to be finalized.

Mercer Island decided to join the NORCOM effort because it had already given up its dispatch center and relies on Kirkland and Bellevue for those services. Those cities, however, have already committed to joining NORCOM if and when it opens. So the city has checked with Bothell and Issaquah, two cities still operating their own dispatch centers. City staff are concerned, however, because these cities may decided to join NORCOM in the future, putting the city in the same situation it is today.

Plus, there are some benefits to being an investor. The organization of NORCOM will provide its “principals,” or the original cities and agencies that invested in its development, representation on its board with voting privileges to determine its fee structure, policies and procedures. Municipalities that join later will not have this representation as they will only subscribe to the service. They will also pay an additional six percent premium for each service they receive.

Mercer Island closed its dispatch center in 2003 because of the increasing costs of keeping it staffed and upgrading it with newer technologies. Before closing the doors, city staff explored its options. It determined it had three possibilities; stay the same, upgrade its facility, or pay someone else to do it for them.

Ultimately, city staff recommended and city council approved shutting down the dispatch center, agreeing to pay Kirkland and Bellevue to dispatch for them. Even then, it was known NORCOM was on the horizon as another option to pursue in the future. In 2004 the city began outsourcing its dispatch services.

The city currently pays just over $320,000 a year for dispatch services, with $215,000 going to Kirkland for police calls and $105,000 to Bellevue. Under the current system, all emergency calls are picked-up by dispatchers in Kirkland, which has its own station reserved for Island calls, and if the call requires the fire department it is transferred to Bellevue. MIPD police officers are dispatched from the Kirkland center.

Mercer Island will pay NORCOM a percentage of the operating costs based on the call volume directed toward the Island.

The problem with local dispatch centers, according to Kirkland Police Corporal Bruce Howell is that several calls are now made for every day occurring incidents.

“It used to be that when there was an auto accident one person would go over to the nearest pay phone or business to call 911,” Howell said. “Or you’d get an occasional cell phone call. Now you get everyone in the general area that saw the accident calling on their phone to report a little fender-bender. But the dispatchers have to take every call to make sure they’re for the same accident.”

The number of people needed to sift through all these calls has made it difficult to staff dispatch centers adequately within a city’s budget constraints. However, a regional center like NORCOM spreads those costs proportionately, MIPD Public Information Officer Leslie Burns said, and makes dispatching more affordable.

The switch won’t bring any big changes, Burns said. If anything, having a centralized dispatch will slightly improve response times since fire calls will no long have to be transferred, Burns added.

“Citizens will not notice a difference,” Burns said.

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