Stacen Gross, left, and Rey Freeman watch as Maryville Public Safety Dispatch Coordinator Jessica Sigman demonstrates the municipal fire-and-police agency’s 911 communication capabilities. Gross and Freeman were in Maryville representing SCG Consulting, which has been commissioned to write a feasibility study with regard to an integrated 911 facility that would serve both MPS and the Nodaway County Sheriff’s Office.

About 20 members of law enforcement and first-responder agencies countywide met Tuesday for an informational session with representatives from Omaha, Nebraska-based SCG Consulting, a firm hired by the City of Maryville and Nodaway County to perform a feasibility study with regard to a proposed “combined 911” dispatch center.Intermittent discussions about creating a consolidated 911 operation have taken place between the Maryville Department of Public Safety, which provides both law enforcement and fire protection services, and the Nodaway County Sheriff’s Office since the mid-1990s. But the efforts languished due to funding and staffing concerns as well as jurisdictional friction.

But following the 2016 election of Sheriff Randy Strong, a former Public Safety officer, serious talks about a consolidated 911 facility have been moving forward for several months.

Nodaway County currently has three dispatch centers, all located in Maryville: one operated by Public Safety, one by the Sheriff’s Office and a third campus-based facility serving the Northwest Missouri State University Police Department.

In the course of Tuesday’s two-hour session, Stacen Gross of SCG and Rey Freeman, an SCG-retained radio expert, recommended that a combined 911 center be operated by Public Safety and the Sheriff’s Office with the university location, which campus Chief Clarence Green said offers “hardened” security and expansion-friendly design, possibly serving as a backup.

Gross and Freeman said the nature of the campus police department, which is tasked with a number of outreach, education and service functions beyond the scope of basic law enforcement — such as the Safe Ride Home student shuttle service — means it will likely continue to require a self-contained communications system.

They went on to say that a combined county-city dispatch center offers a number of advantages that would likely streamline first-responder and officer communication while improving service to citizens.

A new center with upgraded gear, they said, would also bring both agencies up to date with regard to a growing array of communications technologies that embrace wireless systems, video, photos, texting, computer-aided dispatching and “interoperability” between officers and emergency personnel in the field.

In addition, the consultants said, a combined dispatch operation should create opportunities for improved training and a greater emphasis on efficiency and professionalism.

For example, cell phone calls for medical aid fielded by Maryville Public Safety must currently be relayed to the Sheriff’s Office dispatch desk, since the Sheriff’s Office is under contract to serve as the communications provider for the Nodaway County Ambulance District.

A unified 911 center, therefore, would require dispatchers to push fewer buttons and make fewer calls in situations where seconds sometimes make the difference between life and death.

What an integrated 911 facility won’t do is save the taxpayers money. Staffing and operational costs, Gross and Freeman said, will likely stay about the same, at least in the short run, though they believe there is a potential for savings over a period of years.

Just equipping such a facility with new radio/computer consoles, they said, could cost as much as a half-million dollars, which presents a unique challenge, since Missouri remains the only state in the nation without a 911 tax on cellphone use.

Gross pointed out, however, that both agencies are going to have to spend big money anyway, since their current 911 radio desks are out of date and at or near the point of being “sun-setted” for service by the manufacturer, though stockpiled parts and maintenance are still available through independent vendors.

In that sense, he said, a combined 911 facility will offer overall cost savings, since it’s cheaper to equip a single new facility than to replace existing gear at the two existing dispatch offices, one at the county jail and another at Public Safety headquarters just a couple of blocks to the south.

Other challenges Gross and Freeman were asked to address include the need for better communications with rural fire and rescue districts, whose small budgets mean volunteer rural firefighters and first-responders are often forced to use antiquated radios while working in remote parts of the county where cell phone service is unreliable or non-existent.

Freeman said that while the rural departments are not directly part of the feasibility study, the effort to create an integrated 911 operation presents an opportunity to look at what equipment is currently in service in an effort to come up with affordable alternatives.

As a practical matter, he said a new 911 console at a combined facility should operate like “a universal remote control,” in that dispatchers will be able, at least to an extent, to communicate with first-responders equipped with older gear.

In addition to the informational meeting, Freeman and Gross spent time Tuesday touring all three of Maryville’s dispatch locations, where they took notes about the equipment and systems currently in use and interviewed staff.

While no final decisions have been made, both Sheriff Strong and Maryville Public Safety Director Keith Wood said a combined 911 operation will likely be located in a proposed new $4 million municipal police/fire headquarters to be constructed near the intersection of First and Vine on about two acres of vacant land purchased from the Maryville R-II School District.

Construction of the new facility is expected to begin this summer, possibly as soon as July. SCG is expected to submit a draft 911 feasibility report for local input by the middle of May with its final report set for completion around the second week of June.

Cost of the study is $22,000, which is being funded jointly by the City of Maryville and the Nodaway County Commission.

By Tony Brown | The Forum