City to launch new 911 call system

The last thing anyone wants when calling 911 is a dropped call.

That’s what New Haven is trying to prevent from happening as it works to merge the operations of its police and fire 911 call response center.

On Monday, the Board of Aldermen received two ordinances about the establishment of a new Department of Public Safety Communications, which is intended to improve public safety and may save the city money, said Robert Smuts ’01, the city’s chief administrative officer, who is spearheading the project.

Smuts explained that the new department will change the way the city answers 911 calls. He said New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. will appoint someone not affiliated with either the police or fire departments to head the new department, should the Board of Aldermen approve its creation. Smuts said he expects broad support for the new department when the proposal goes before the board.

Under the new system, neither the police nor the fire department would be responsible for managing the city’s 911 call center, Smuts said; rather, a neutral party would ensure that the center functions as a unified entity.

Ward 9 Alderman Roland Lemar, who is on the board’s finance committee, said he also thinks that in the long-term the new department would save money for the city.

Smuts explained that the new department would reduce the number of overtime hours worked by employees of the 911 call center because if the new department is created, two operator positions would be added. The new department would be staffed by the same people as the old department, he said.

He said he does not expect the creation of the department to have a negative effect on the city’s budget, adding that the department would increase the efficiency of how the city handles 911 calls.

The integration of the departments would streamline the city’s emergency response, Smuts said. In the past, a call that needed to be transferred from one department to another took time to be transferred and could be dropped — time that is of the essence during an emergency.

Additionally, Smuts said employees in the new department would be trained in four departmental positions: call operator, fire dispatch, police dispatch and non-emergency.

“That gives a greater knowledge [among staff] of what has to happen,” Smuts said. “It also prevents burn-out [of staff] and results in a better flow of the work.”

The move is a continuation of the city’s decision in June 2007 to combine the police and fire departments’ 911 operations into a one-room Public Safety Answering Point at police headquarters. The new department would be an improvement over the prior system, Smuts said; even at the one-room public safety center, different people handled the calls for the police and fire departments.

The new department could not be established without the police union’s approval of its new contract, which occurred at the Board of Aldermen meeting Monday night. The union approved the creation of the new department in its contract, Smuts said.

New Haven Police Chief James Lewis said many other cities have system similar to the one the new department will create.

“One good thing it does is provide a career path,” Lewis said. “Dispatchers can work and eventually become supervisors and spend time developing those specific skills.”

Though three currently vacant positions will be cut if the new department is created, no currently filled positions will be, Smuts said.

Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield said the finance committee will likely discuss the department at their next meeting Oct. 29. If the committee approves its creation, it will be put to a vote of the Board of Aldermen on Nov. 16.

Colin Ross contributed reporting.

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