At the request of the City of Westminster, Carroll County 911 services will cover overnight radio and dispatch communications for the Westminster Police Department, and along with that change the county will hire two more emergency communications staff members.
The Board of County Commissioners unanimously voted to cover communications from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. for the city’s police. The county already provides this service for the municipalities of Hampstead, Manchester and Mount Airy.
Westminster Mayor Joe Dominick told the commissioners Thursday that finances and safety concerns prompted the city to make this request. On average, he said, the city gets one call per hour overnight, so it’s not efficient for the city to have two dispatchers working at night on the rare chance that they have multiple incidents at once.
City officials had considered bringing this request to the commissioners for some time, according to Dominick, but a recent phone call prompted the city to make its ask sooner rather than later.
Westminster police got a false report of a shooting and a hostage situation from a spoofed phone number, requiring the sole dispatcher to handle multiple calls at once with the caller and emergency services personnel, Dominick said in an interview. Fortunately, he said, responding officers realized the incident was fake.
“However, had it been legitimate, we would be asking a single call-taker, dispatcher, computer entry person who is alone to handle too much,” Dominick told the Times.
The mayor worries about what could have happened if that threat was real and if another person called for help while the dispatcher was already multitasking.
“It’s a rare event," Dominick told the commissioners. “But if it happens it could cost someone their life.”
The mayor hadn’t planned to call in to the commissioners meeting. Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, who’d previously discussed the proposal with Westminster officials, reached out to Dominick during the meeting to answer questions being raised by commissioners. Dominick pushed for the county’s support, pointing out that the county offers this service to three other municipalities.
Scott Campbell, the county’s director of public safety, recommended to the commissioners that if the county wanted to accept this additional responsibility it would need to hire two more emergency communication specialists.
Campbell clarified that all 911 calls in Carroll already go through the county’s emergency communications center, but after an initial call is taken it may be rerouted to a police department’s dispatch service if it is a police matter. Westminster’s request was for the county to also handle the steps after the initial call. Law enforcement incidents may require a dispatcher and officer to talk back and forth, Campbell said in an interview, which is not typically required for other types of 911 calls.
Creating two new positions will cost about $136,000 annually, according to Ted Zaleski, county management and budget director. Westminster is willing to contribute to the first year’s costs for the county, Dominick said.
The commissioners, however, were concerned about the following years. Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, supported assisting Westminster but was challenged by the county’s financial situation.
“I think it would be in the best interest of Carroll County to have everything centralized at our 911 center,” he said, but added, “I don’t know where in the world we’re going to come up with money.”
In January, the commissioners declined a request from the Department of Public Safety to create additional positions at the emergency communications center, citing budget concerns. Before then, in November, Campbell came to the commissioners asking to hire four more people, saying overtime had “exploded.” The county overestimated the amount of money a statewide phone bill fee would produce, funding that county officials had hoped would help fund additional positions.
Zaleski told the commissioners that adding two positions to the emergency communications center while taking on some of Westminster’s call volume will not improve the existing staffing situation at the 911 center.
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It will likely take several months to hire and train new employees, so it is uncertain when exactly the transition for Westminster will begin. Campbell said in an interview that those who dial 911 will not notice a change in how calls are handled.