Officials involved in talks about consolidating Douglas and Sarpy 911 services say dispatchers shouldn't stress about losing their jobs — at least not yet.
That's because county leaders still don't know what the merger would look like.
Ideas range from a complete merger all at once to merging gradually, starting, say, with sharing equipment.
But as talks have progressed, anxiety has surfaced over the future employment of Sarpy County's dispatchers. A Facebook page warns that the county 911 center is “in grave danger” and that unless the citizens of Sarpy County speak up, the department “will be partially or completely liquidated and shut down.”
Officials involved in the talks say they understand that the uncertainty and wide range of possibilities are frustrating.
“I know it's scary and unsettling and unnerving,” said Douglas County Board Chairwoman Mary Ann Borgeson. “We want to make sure that everybody understands that we're just not there yet.”
Sarpy County Board members Jim Warren and Don Kelly agreed, calling the talks an important discussion that still faces much negotiation.
Sarpy County Administrator Mark Wayne said he met with dispatchers recently and assured them that “nothing was imminent.” Papillion Fire Chief Bill Bowes agreed, saying a complete merger — if it happened — would be years away.
People rallying online to save Sarpy dispatchers' jobs are “just being proactive,” Wayne said.
“They feel like they provide really good service.”
The Sarpy center takes about 50,000 emergency calls a year, about 100,000 nonemergency calls and “thousands of calls we transfer or refer to other agencies,” according to the county's website.
Sarpy County, however, routinely takes longer to dispatch calls than national standards, a World-Herald analysis last year showed. County officials said at the time that changes were already in the works to address that.
The group studying a regional 911 system estimated that consolidating the Douglas and Sarpy call centers would save taxpayers $2 million annually.
As of Friday, more than 1,700 people had liked a Facebook page called Keep the Sarpy County 911 Center. Others are using the hashtag #savesarpy911 on Twitter.
People on the Facebook page say the figures on potential savings tell only part of the story.
Some people commenting on the page say merging service with Douglas County would result in a decline in quality, noting a glitch in October that for 80 minutes blocked 911 callers using landlines from reaching emergency dispatchers in Douglas County.
“Douglas County dispatchers are excellently trained. They are well-staffed. But are they staffed to be able to take care of Sarpy County? The only person who is going to ultimately be hurting are the citizens of Sarpy County,” said Matt Barrall, president of the Sarpy County Fraternal Order of Police, which negotiates the dispatchers' contract.
Barrall said dispatchers feel unprotected because officials haven't been able to guarantee that their benefits, seniority and wages would carry over if a consolidation went through.
“There are a lot of questions, and no one is able to provide any answers,” he said. “Then what you have is city administrators and Douglas County administrators going on the record saying this is all but finished. They're wondering who's telling the truth.”
Even if a change were two years away, Barrall said, that's “no time for someone who is worried about their career or family.”
County officials say the potential cost savings are hard to ignore, and that's why they're spending time looking into them.
Sarpy County, for example, is awaiting the results of a study by Matrix Consulting Group, which is evaluating how emergency calls are dispatched in the county. The consultant's study also is to offer options for consolidating services with Douglas County.
“It's our responsibility to save taxpayers money,” said Kelly, the Sarpy County Board member. “If we can find a way that does that and doesn't affect public safety, we're obligated to do that.”
While merging the systems could bring savings, Kelly said, keeping a dispatch center in Sarpy makes sense, too. He called public safety, tax savings and protecting dispatchers' jobs “all important priorities.”
Warren said he favors a consolidation plan that would keep Sarpy's center but share more equipment, such as hardware and software, with Douglas County.
“We have a good-working dispatch center,” he said. “Let's keep that up and running.”
Another Sarpy County Board member, Tom Richards, said that until details about a merger are presented to the board, he'll remain unsatisfied that it would be in Sarpy County's best interest.
“I'll continue to listen, but people are putting the cart way before the horse,” he said.
Borgeson said Douglas County is interested in entering into one interlocal agreement for service with Sarpy County. But it's up to Sarpy County to determine what each agreement with its cities would look like, she said.
“It's really kind of in Sarpy County's ballpark,” she said.
A resolution needs to come soon, because Douglas County is trying to determine language for a bond issue on the November ballot. The bond issue will include updating property at 156th Street and West Maple Road for a 911 center regardless of whether it's a regional center or a new home for just Douglas County 911, said Douglas County Administrator Patrick Bloomingdale.
If officials decide to pursue merging the centers into a regional one, it's unclear what the staffing needs would be, Bloomingdale said.
“It makes sense to bring in people who have years of experience as dispatchers rather than hiring new people off the street,” he said. “But we're not in a position right now to say the exact number we'll need. The devil is in the details.”