State looks to move trooper dispatchers to Palmer

May 28, 2020

Credit CES and KPB

If you call 911 on the Kenai Peninsula right now, chances are that your call goes to a big building in Soldotna just down the street from Safeway. From there, the emergency call center dispatchers determine who to send to help.  

Kenai, Seward and Homer handle their own dispatching, but the staff at the emergency dispatch center serve the Alaska State Troopers, CES and the Soldotna Police Department, among other services, which covers a big chunk of the central peninsula. Last year, the center processed more than 24,000 calls.

But the troopers may not be part of that for much longer. For the last few years, the Alaska Department of Public Safety has been looking into consolidating their dispatchers from Southcentral and Southeast into a central location. Until recently, that was a facility in Anchorage that DPS already owns. But on May 13, the department announced that it would move the location to Palmer.

James Baisden, chief of staff to borough mayor Charlie Pierce, said the borough doesn’t believe service will be as good once it’s moved out of the local areas. Dispatchers could have a harder time collaborating, and won’t have knowledge of the area. It will also likely increase the cost for the borough to run the center, and will likely mean other services have to pay more to receive services. The City of Soldotna, for example, is expecting an increase in costs for dispatching its police. Baisden said other regions do their dispatching this way, but the borough believes the existing system is the best.

“If you have a trooper issue that you need assistance with, it’s going to come into our dispatch center, they’re going to have to answer it, and they’re going to have to transfer it to the Palmer post for them to answer it," he said. "So a little delay. It’s not as efficient; we worry about the safety that it can provide. We think that having a local dispatch center down in the Kenai Peninsula Borough is the best and most efficient and safest way to dispatch the calls.”

DPS spokesperson Megan Peters said centralizing the dispatchers has a number of benefits, including giving the department more control over its own dispatching operations. DPS already operates a center in Fairbanks that dispatches the Kodiak troopers, and she said having another one in Palmer would provide redundancy in case one of the two goes down.

“By having our own center in the Southcentral area, it allows us to mirror what we’re already doing in one part of the state with our own employees, between dispatchers and troopers, and we can control what’s happening for our own people," she said.

The plan goes back to the Walker administration, and there are still some funds left over from then that are helping to pay for the project. Peters said the plan would save DPS about $700,000 per year, as it wouldn’t be contracting to other centers anymore. The city of Palmer is partnering with DPS to give them the building, and in exchange, the dispatchers will handle Palmer’s police department.

Centralizing the services will help improve coverage for cell phones in broader regions of the state. Right now, if you call 911 on your cell phone, a dispatcher should be able to tell exactly where you are and who owns the phone you’re calling from, and call you back if the call drops. Peters said that’s only true for about 20 percent of the state. By working with the telecommunications providers and routing calls to one location, DPS hopes to improve that coverage, especially in rural areas.

“Now imagine that you’re getting beaten up and you’ve called 911 and you’re unconscious," she said. "You can’t talk, they can’t figure out where you are—they don’t have the ability to see that. However, they know that something is going on, no one is responding, so they send help, whether it’s a trooper, or a village police officer, a health clinic person, anything. They can still send someone, whether it’s local PD or troopers or EMS or fire.”

Municipalities haven’t been happy about this decision or about DPS’ communication about it. In February, officials from the Kenai Peninsula Borough, Ketchikan Gateway Borough, Wasilla, Houston and the Mat-Su Borough sent a letter to the governor raising a long list of concerns about this.

Legislators have been trying to meet with DPS about the plan for months, but Rep. Gary Knopp of Kenai says they’ve had little success. During the last legislative session, Knopp said he arranged a meeting with more than a dozen people in his office to get some answers, but didn’t walk away with too much.

“So we asked the question: If you’re only going to dispatch troopers, what happens when we send a call to 911 to the call center in Anchorage, so then the caller says you might as well send the EMS and fire as well, what happens at that point?" he said. "Well, they say the call would get sent back to PSAP, back to our dispatch, and they would dispatch them. So that makes no sense to do that, because we already dispatch public safety, EMS and fire. And so why would you split that up? But the reality of it is the question was really truly never answered.”

The House Finance Committee pulled the funding for the project, and the Senate added language saying it wouldn’t support the Anchorage center without Legislative approval. The move to Palmer technically fits that language. Knopp said DPS is clearly not following the intent with the move.

“If you’re going to contract it out or buy something, why are you not talking to Mat-Su or Wasilla or to Kenai? You just don’t get to go behind closed doors. I mean, I guess you can go behind closed doors and do whatever you like, but it’s not a very good transparent process," Knopp said.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office forwarded a request for comment to the Department of Public Safety. Peters says the tentative timeline is to have the new Palmer center up and running by early 2021.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@kdll.org.