By Rick Callihan
Nearly a year ago Dunwoody’s City Council began discussions regarding the city’s 911 emergency service. This week, I expect our City Council to vote in favor of dropping DeKalb County 911 and approve an intergovernmental agreement with the Chattahoochee River 911 Authority, also known as ChatComm.
ChatComm is the public safety 911 center for Sandy Springs and Johns Creek, operated by a private company.
The decision to leave DeKalb County has been long debated by City Council. Dunwoody Police Chief Billy Grogan, has made it clear he has not been pleased with the level of service provided by DeKalb. Based on comments and staff recommendations, City Manager Warren Hutmacher has been in favor of switching to ChatComm since Day One of this discussion.
When this issue was first discussed by City Council, DeKalb County seemed unwilling to make any changes to the current product offered to Dunwoody. But that has changed. DeKalb has agreed to all the requests (our own dispatchers, our own frequency, etc.) put forth by city staff.
Under a proposal on the table Dunwoody could stay with DeKalb and invest just over $100,000 in new equipment, with no risk of needing additional money from the general fund. If the new DeKalb service proves not to be an improvement, the city can opt out after six months.
I think the city should stay with DeKalb as that option is less money up front and does not involve potential annual contributions from the city’s general fund.
Everyone in Dunwoody with a landline telephone and a standard mobile phone pays a 911 fee of $1.39 a phone per month. These fees, called E-911 fees, currently go to DeKalb County. The county does not charge the city for the 911 service; the fees collected seem to cover the expense.
Currently, the city has no firm figure on how much revenue is collected from Dunwoody residents with these E-911 fees, and DeKalb either does not know or will not tell us. Once the switch is made to ChatComm, those 911 fees will go not to DeKalb but instead would go toward paying our new business partner, ChatComm.
The big question on the council’s mind is will the E-911 fees paid by Dunwoody phone owners cover the $1 million dollar annual fee for ChatComm services? The city estimates between $900,000 to $1.2 million will be collected. In addition to the $1 million dollar annual fee, the city has to pay a $570,000 start-up expense to ChatComm.
I think the ChatComm agreement will be fine for us in Dunwoody once established, but potentially will be more expensive to the taxpayers. Hopefully there is a way to have cell towers across Dunwoody programmed so 911 calls go directly to ChatComm and not to DeKalb. The last thing emergency callers need is to be placed on hold and transferred. That being said, if City Council approves the ChatComm plan all fire and EMS calls will have to go first to ChatComm then transferred to DeKalb’s 911 center since we still use DeKalb’s fire department.
That’s the trade off in this deal. We will have faster response times for police calls, but a delay when calling for fire and ambulance.
But the ambulance part could soon change. DeKalb County may cut its ambulance service and replace it with a private service, most likely Rural Metro. It may be possible for ChatComm to dispatch directly to a private ambulance operating in DeKalb.
With ChatComm, our police chief is granted his wishes of having a radio channel just for Dunwoody police, our own dispatchers, Smart911, and AVL (all cars plotted on dispatcher’s screen), same as DeKalb promised to provide.
I do have a problem with the way the city handled the 911 negotiations. The city never hired a public safety consultant to analyze, compare or report on the options available. Aside from DeKalb and ChatComm, Dunwoody could have its own 911 center or partner with another city like Doraville.
Our city spent $80,000 for consultants to make colorful renderings of park designs, spent nearly $100,000 with the Convention Visitors Bureau for a city logo and branding, and spent more money on consultants for conducting workshops and assisting with land-use plans, but not one penny was spent to bring in consultants for something as important as 911 services.
The consultants may have come up with the same results, but I’d rather have had the professional guidance on something this important.
View Rick Callihan’s Dunwoody Talk blog at www.dunwoodytalk.blogspot.com.