By Amy Wenk

The Chattahoochee River 911 Authority, also called ChatComm, soon might answer Dunwoody’s emergency calls.

Hoping for improved response times, Dunwoody officials are considering joining ChatComm — Sandy Springs’ 911 center that it runs with Johns Creek. The center would pick up Dunwoody’s emergency calls and dispatch its police officers.

“[Sandy Springs] is one of our most critical partners,” said Dunwoody City Manager Warren Hutmacher. The two cities already share a SWAT team, he said. “We are always looking for opportunities to work with them on issues of mutual interest.”

Hutmacher said a decision on ChatComm could come in July. Right now, “we are still looking at all of our options,” he said, and are in the process of drafting an intergovernmental agreement for Dunwoody City Council to review “as a preliminary step to see if we’ve got a good fit there.”

DeKalb County currently answers Dunwoody’s emergency calls and dispatches its first responders.

Hutmacher said the city is looking to break from the county to “achieve a higher level of service for our citizens.

“DeKalb County 911 has a high volume of calls, and the city of Dunwoody calls are lumped in with all of North Precinct’s, which sometimes causes delays,” Hutmacher said. “We are looking at some other options to see if we can get a higher level of service for an efficient price.”

Bringing Dunwoody on board could enhance police capabilities, said Sandy Springs Assistant Manager Noah Reiter. He said the police chiefs of both cities have expressed interest in a automatic aid agreement.

“Essentially, you drop jurisdictional boundaries, and the closest unit goes to the call,” Reiter said.

He also said serving Dunwoody could help subsidize operational costs for the 10-month-old 911 center, located at the corner of Barfield Road and Mount Vernon Highway.

“The more jurisdictions, the more user agencies you add to the center, the more operational and financial efficiencies are realized,” Reiter said.

ChatComm is funded through 911 user fees charged by telephone providers. Residents pay the $1.50 monthly fee for landlines, wireless phones and voice-over-IP capabilities.

ChatComm’s earnings to date from 911 user fees in Sandy Springs and Johns Creek are about $2.3 million less than first-year revenue projections estimated at $6.7 million, according to information given to Sandy Springs City Council during May budget meetings. That is expected leave the center short more than $1 million on its annual services contract of nearly $5.5 million with iXP Corp., the company that designed, built and operates the call center.

Sandy Springs and Johns Creek had to make up the difference with 2010 general fund dollars. Each city paid a percentage based on its call volume.

Sandy Springs was responsible for 65 percent and April 6 City Council allocated up to $900,000 to subsidize ChatComm’s operations from its 2010 budget.

Johns Creek had to fork over 35 percent. City Council approved an ordinance April 26 to transfer $350,000 from its 2010 budget for ChatComm, according to Johns Creek City Manager John Kachmar.

Sandy Springs City Council set aside $915,000 for the center’s second year of operations when it approved the 2011 budget June 15.

But Kachmar would not comment if Johns Creek would allocate subsidy funds for ChatComm in its 2011 budget, which takes effect Oct. 1. “We’re not there yet.”

The 911 center would likely need less money from Sandy Springs and Johns Creek if Dunwoody joined the party, Reiter said. “It will reduce the amount of general fund subsidization from both cities’ budgets, but not eliminate it.”

Reiter said if ChatComm services three cities, the breakdown would change. Sandy Springs would be responsible for 54 percent of ChatComm’s operational dollars, Johns Creek, 28 percent and Dunwoody, 18 percent.

For ChatComm to accommodate Dunwoody, Reiter said eight to 12 additional employees would need to be hired to ensure a dedicated, around-the-clock dispatcher and an adequate number of call takers. The center currently has about 56 employees.

Dunwoody must give DeKalb County at least six months notice if it switches service to ChatComm, Hutmacher said. The soonest ChatComm could answer Dunwoody’s calls is mid-January or February of 2011.

Dunwoody’s other options include partnering with another city, building its own 911 center or staying with DeKalb County.

Dunwoody currently doesn’t pay DeKalb budgeted funds for it to answer 911 calls within the city. But the county receives 911 user fees that city residents pay monthly on their phone bill, said DeKalb County E-911 Center director Maj. James Conroy.

No matter what Dunwoody decides, DeKalb County would continue to dispatch the city’s firefighters and ambulances because they are county employees, Conroy said. Dunwoody operates only its own police force.

Conroy said if Dunwoody switches to ChatComm, the call center would pick up all emergency calls and transfer calls for firefighters and ambulances back to the county for dispatch. Conroy questioned that dispatch process and whether the city and county would split the 911 user fees, something he said has “never been pushed or tested.”

Reiter said funding still was in discussion. If 911 fees are insufficient to cover costs for Dunwoody, the city might have to pay ChatComm a monthly fee, which would come from the city’s general fund, Reiter said.

Reiter added Sandy Springs’ officials are exploring its options regarding the 911 user fees since the fees currently do not cover ChatComm’s costs. The state caps the fee at $1.50.

Reiter sees ChatComm as a good option for Dunwoody.

“Our police departments already work closely together,” Reiter said. “We share a very large geographical border. So there is a lot of synergy there.”