The city of Burlington has accepted a proposal to provide emergency dispatch services to Graham that officials in both municipalities hail as a model of inter-jurisdictional cooperation.
Yet, this budding partnership between the two cities has also generated some grumbling among Alamance County’s top brass, who had hoped to encourage this same sort of regional consolidation around the county’s own 9-1-1 call center.
Graham’s proposed deal with Burlington would ultimately relieve the county of some of its responsibility for the smaller municipality’s emergency communications. Under an agreement that Burlington’s city council approved Tuesday, and which Graham’s council is slated to take up next week, the county’s 9-1-1 center would continue to serve as an entry point for all emergency calls within either of the two cities. But any calls that the center gets for Graham’s police or fire departments would ultimately be relayed to Burlington’s police department, where a bank of in-house operators already fields requests for Burlington’s own emergency services once the 9-1-1 center has transferred them over.
The agreement that the two municipalities have struck will require Burlington to manage various internal and interagency communications, like the radio chatter among police officers, on behalf of the neighboring municipality.
In order to accommodate this extra radio traffic, Burlington has agreed to add four more operators to its 15-person telecommunications staff as well as a fourth communications console to the three that it presently has. In return, Graham would pay Burlington an estimated $254,000 a year to cover the anticipated increase in the neighboring city’s personnel and maintenance costs. Graham would also be on the hook for a one-time “upstart” fee of $80,000 to pay for the new telecom console.
Graham’s recurring expenses under this deal would be almost twice the $130,478 that the county presently charges the city to handle its emergency dispatches. Yet, the partnership with Burlington will be well worth the added expense, according to Graham’s municipal police chief Jeff Pritchard, who has been a driving force behind the proposed intercity agreement.
In an interview with The Alamance News, Pritchard acknowledged that he and his colleagues have been exploring alternatives to the county’s dispatch services for some time due to the shortcomings of a statewide VIPER system that the county’s 9-1-1 center uses for emergency transmissions.
“All of this started with our being unable to have clear communications with the VIPER system,” he told the newspaper on Tuesday. “Our number one priority has been officer safety with better communication. We also use the same record management system [as Burlington], so we can communicate more efficiently with each other.”
Prichard said that the biggest drawback of the VIPER system has been its patchy coverage within Graham’s city limits. He added that the system’s administrators have previously told him and his colleagues that Graham would have to spend $500,000 to erect a new telecom tower in order to get clearer reception.
The city’s police chief went on to note that Graham’s emergency services would have much better coverage under a competing telecom system that Guilford Metro 9-1-1 has set up as an alternative to VIPER. Prichard conceded that he and his colleagues made some initial overtures to this system’s administrators, only to be turned down due to Graham’s relative remoteness from Guilford County. They were nevertheless referred to the city of Burlington, which had previously joined the network that Guilford Metro maintains.
Prichard and his associates ultimately approached their counterparts in Burlington in 2018, as Chris Gaddis, an assistant chief with Burlington’s police force, recalled during a presentation to his own municipality’s city council on Monday. Gaddis went on to tell Burlington’s decision makers that both parties soon realized that they could benefit through an arrangement like the one that the council ultimately signed off on a day later.
“We feel really confident that this will be a game changer for both cities,” Gaddis declared when he made his pitch at the council’s monthly work session on Monday. “It would give us more efficient communications between the two cities without having to go through a computer console…It will allow us to have more people in the room which is a plus for us, as well as allowing more efficient communications between the two call centers.”
Gaddis’ enthusiasm about this deal was generally echoed by the members of Burlington’s city council who took part in the discussion at Monday’s work session. The proposal went over especially well with councilman Harold Owen, who saw it as a harbinger of the increasing regionalization that he said is in store for many local government services.
“This is obviously a step forward,” Owen assured the rest of the council that afternoon. “With the trends going where they are now, you’re seeing a lot more regionalization of this service…This is kind of a brave new world that we’re getting ready to go into.”
The council went on to rubberstamp the agreement a day later in a 4-to-0 vote that excluded councilman Bob Ward, who asked to be recused from the decision, as well as the council’s preceding discussion, in light of his day job as one of Graham’s city attorneys. The contract must now get a nod from Graham’s city council, which will presumably consider it next Tuesday when it convenes its first meeting of the New Year. Once both councils have signed off on the deal, officials in Burlington expect to take another six months to hire the staff and install the equipment needed to consummate the joint venture with Graham.
But even as this prospective partnership received the green light in Burlington, it got an entirely different set of signals from Alamance County’s board of commissioners, which held a regularly-scheduled meeting on the same day as the city council’s work session.
During this gathering at the county’s headquarters on Monday, Amy Scott Galey, the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, expressed her dismay over this deal, which she had been completely unknown to her until she stumbled across a news item derived from Burlington’s recently-released work session agenda. Alamance County’s manager Bryan Hagood assured Galey that he had also been caught off guard by this squib, although he admitted that he had some previous inkling of a potential agreement between Burlington and Graham.
“I became aware of this as a rumor about a year and a half ago,” Hagood conceded when the issue arose in the final minutes of the board’s meeting on Monday. “I have let the city of Graham know that there have been some concerns for our part.”
The county manager went on to recall a communication breakdown that occurred in the summer of 2018 when the 9-1-1 center received a call about the erratic behavior of a machete-wielding man in northwestern Burlington. The man’s relatives initially called 9-1-1 after he slashed the tires on a car parked outside the family home. His precarious psychological state at the time prompted the 9-1-1 center to dispatch an ambulance to the scene, although it neglected to send out an accompanying police escort as is de rigueur with potentially dangerous patients. The man’s state of mind grew substantially worse by the time that word of the crisis reached Burlington’s police department, and the first two officers to arrive on the scene found themselves in a standoff that ended in the shooting death of the blade-brandishing patient.
In the aftermath of this episode, the police department called in the SBI to review the conduct of its officers, who were ultimately given the all-clear by the state agency. In the meantime, Hagood launched a review of the 9-1-1 center’s role in this tragedy, which uncovered a lapse in the center’s standard operating procedures and prompted a number of policy changes later that year. In addition to these operational adjustments, Hagood also suggested that the county should either absorb or rehouse Burlington’s dispatch services at the 9-1-1 center in order to prevent future mishaps during transfers.
Hagood reiterated his plea for a consolidated call center when he addressed Graham’s proposed agreement with Burlington on Monday. He went on to assert that the deal between the two municipalities could widen the disconnect that he hoped to eliminate by bringing Burlington’s emergency communications under the county’s umbrella.
“That is a point of weakness,” he told the commissioners on Monday,” and we have definitely dealt with issues in the past that come from that transfer [from the county’s 9-1-1 center to Burlington’s operations].
“I would certainly hope,” the county manager added, “that we get a chance, at least at the management level…to talk about this.”
Yet, from Pritchard’s perspective, the conversation about the communication failure in 2018 was more or less put to bed when the county accepted the responsibility for this error and took the steps necessary to prevent this sort of glitch at the 9-1-1 center.
“That issue has been addressed,” Graham’s chief of police told The Alamance News, “and I think that the staff at C-Com have gotten the message.”
Pritchard wasn’t any more flustered by another point that the county’s top-ranking officials had raised – i.e., the price differential between Graham’s existing contract with the county and its proposed deal with the city of Burlington. The police chief insisted that the county’s current price advantage is negated by the VIPER system’s subpar coverage. He also alluded to an impending spike in the cost of the county’s communication services.
“They’re going up over 20 percent next year – to $160,000,” he told the newspaper, “and they’re proposing more increases in the future. “We think this is a better fit,” he later said of the arrangement with Burlington, “and a better opportunity for Graham.”