Whether to transfer the city of Ripon’s dispatch center to Fond du Lac County was a topic during Monday’s Common Council meeting.
Ultimately, it was suggest to take a wait-and-see approach as more information is discovered.
Ripon Police Chief Bill Wallner presented council members his thoughts on the matter, which was first brought up Aug. 10 during a Committee of the Whole meeting.
“It allows us to just kind of pull back and slow down, to get a better decision on the future of that communication center,” Wallner said of his reasoning for moving forward with the status quo. “We discussed a lot of things. We’ve been given a lot of information. But really we just need to, I think, pull the reins back here a little bit and slow down.”
He also noted it allows the police department and other emergency departments to prepare their 2021 budgets, which is due to the city at the week’s end, as well as process future needs regardless of the decision.
History of the issue
While the issue came back to the council earlier this month, it’s nothing new for the city. Wallner noted in a document he provided to council members that “within the last several years, I had been asked to do a small cost assessment on the viability and continuation of the city of Ripon Police Department’s communication center.”
He added “in 2020, planned upgrades in the Fond du Lac County Records Management and Computer Aided Dispatch Systems, along with possible need for upgraded hardware and infrastructure at the Ripon Communication center, caused staff to begin the job of revaluation and assessment of our current programs and look toward the cost of future operations.”
The equipment and technology present at the communication center has been a concern for some time, with Wallner mentioning in the document provided to council members that he was briefed by former Chief Dave Lukoski when he took over for him in 2017.
“One of the areas that concerned him was the stability and support for the 911 operating system and telephone line connection to the dispatch center,” Wallner wrote. “Lukowski indicated that he had strong concerns about the longevity of the system, because the main computer that was the center of the operation was dated and extremely old.”
Wallner discovered that the computer that controlled the 911 intake calls program was from the late 1980s or early 1990s and that the computer itself still contained a floppy disk port and had not been updated since installation.
The system only receives land-based 911 calls, with cell phone 911 calls going to Fond du Lac County and then being transferred to the Ripon communication center.
He noted he immediately began to try to address this issue, but did not have any luck with several companies as he attempted to find information and a solution for the replacement of the outdated technology it had on hand.
He caught a break in 2019, when a Motorola representative came to the dispatch center to review the system and provide a possible cost estimate on the replacement of the program that the city uses
What Wallner found out was that there didn’t appear to be a system that only allow land-based 911 phone calls. The estimate provided by Motorola required the Next Generation 911 operation system, which would be capable of receiving both land-based and cell 911 calls.
Wallner noted the cost for the change over was approximately $121,516.31 and covers installation, one year software and on-site support. Additional costs included approximately $13,200 for the first year and increasing after that for extended support, and warranties.
He added by adding this type of system, it would most likely increase the number of 911 calls received by Ripon’s communication center as both land-based and cell calls would be received.
According to Wallner, the issue of the out-dated system “came to a head in February of 2020, when the 911 system in the Ripon communication center failed.” While Ripon has the ability with the current system to transfer calls to Fond du Lac County when this happens, concerns about the viability of the current program were raised.
“We believed at the time that the dated computer had failed,” Wallner said of the February incident. “Suddenly, after three days, ATT resolution center called and informed us that it appeared the 911 link had been restored. We tested the system and found that in fact the system was up and running and we were able to restore our ability to answer 911 land-based lines at our dispatch center. At this point, we still do not know what the issue was or how it resolved itself. We also do not know the stability of that system.
“But this was a wake-up call to take a serious look at the services we control in our communications center, how we do business and the reality of replacement of the current land 911 call system that we currently have.”
Relationship with Fond du Lac county
Centralized dispatch was created in 2001 in which all the first responder agencies in the county were dispatched by Fond du Lac County Communications, but Ripon decided not to join at that time.
According to Wallner, there were a variety of reasons for the decision, which includes “location of our community in relationship to the rest of the county, volume of calls for service, a service area for EMS and fire that reached into neighboring counties and communities, communications capability, perceptions of span and control, willingness of our community to support our own communications center and a want to control our own center.”
He added since that time, the communication center has switched from being run by the Fond du Lac County Sheriff’s Office to a standalone county-controlled department.
Wallner noted the county communication center has made strides in the past 19 years and that interviews with representatives of other law enforcement agencies indicated they were satisfied with the center.
“Since the initial takeover of dispatch from their agencies, technology has improved their response and coordination,” Wallner wrote, noting in 2001 squad cars didn’t have computers “... Significant issues that initially plagued the system have been addressed.”
He added conversation would need to happen with the director of the center to determine radio frequency distribution and equipment upgrade needs. He doesn’t believe it would be in city’s best interest to be on the same frequency being used by police departments from Waupun, Rosendale, Campbellsport, Oakfield and the town of Ripon.
Wallner mentioned during the meeting that Ripon likely would share a frequency with just Waupun.
Cost of keeping dispatch in Ripon vs. going to FdL
Wallner noted that if the council, citizens and emergency department managers decide that they want to keep the communication center in Ripon, “significant consideration must be given to future costs.”
He believes “a safe estimate for the cost of the center to remain operational, in its current model, is approximately $350,000 to $425,000 every year for the foreseeable future.”
That covers replacement of the phone system, computer upgrades and replacement, radio upgrade and replacement, replacement of the 911 Next Gen operating system, city-wide upgrade for email services and unknown costs associated with hardware replacement and failure.
Wallner noted “conversation may need to occur with the department[s] utilizing the center, including Ripon Guardian Ambulance and Ripon Area Fire District of sharing the costs of the center.”
While Wallner noted “there is no dispute that the numbers for the cost of the continuation of the communication center, when put to paper, are substantial,” he added “Fond du Lac County would take $250,000 of that amount, from the city tax levy, and transfer that to the county tax levy. That among would remain with the county and would remain constant every year.”
Wallner also would seek to retain Ripon’s most senior communications officer for administrative duties (a projected cost of $61,000 a year), providing a $2,000 salary increase to the current administrative assistant to be consistent and the hiring of one additional full-time patrol officer (projected cost of $100,000 a year) to help resolve issues and complaints in the lobby that may have been handled by communication officers in the past.
He noted it could eliminate the part-time administrative secretary position, saving $6,700 a year.
The city also would need to cover financial separation packages for communication officers that would be affected by the closure and technology/service upgrades may be need to be included to support a change to Fond du Lac County.
Wallner also noted the decision to switch could cause “some pains along the way” as it is a significant change in how it does business.
“Clearly, the lack of home control would impact our ability to dictate policy, and governance of the communications provided to our emergency services,” he wrote.
Questions from the council
Wallner was asked during Monday night’s Common Council meeting if he was concerned that by waiting to make a decision on whether to upgrade the system or move the service to Fond du Lac County that it could fail again and cause problems for Ripon.
He noted the only issue would be if it went down permanently and doesn’t come back up for some reason. If that happened the city would need to make a decision.
Otherwise, it can continue to transfer calls during temporary outages to Fond du Lac County.
Ald. Jolene Schatzinger asked Wallner if there was a concern that pushing back the decision perhaps a year could put Ripon’s communication officers in limbo.
“I appreciate that and quite frankly, the decision here that’s been going on the last couple months in reference to this is probably putting them in more limbo with the decision on their part than the opposite,” he said. “And that’s why [City Administrator] Lori [Rich] and I need to meet with them and get some information to you. My proposal to them right now is what I told my staff is that I’m preparing the 2021 budget as if this center is going to be operational in 2021. As we move forward then, certainly we can address those issues.”
Wallner added Fond du Lac County did say during a meeting that “even if they have openings and our employees want to apply there, they would hold those slots and they’re acceptable for them; they would hold down those slots, anticipating once we close.”
He believes that the fact that the city is “looking at least until this time next year if the change would go,” puts Ripon’s communication officers “at a little bit of an ease there as far as their current position.”
Schatzinger, while acknowledging “change is hard” and that the council doesn’t want “to push anything through without getting information out and getting feedback” felt the reason the conversation was taking place now is because the city had the outage in February and that it could happen again at any time.
“By pushing this out into the future, while it may seem today comforting ... we could be putting ourselves in more of a desperate situation in an unexpected time,” she said, noting now is a good time to talk about it as the city will be going through the budget for 2021.
Wallner noted that more information is needed before the city makes a decision.
“There’s no other way to look at this,” he said. “Our liability and our concerns about the stability of that system have to be answered. It’s either going to be answered by one, moving our dispatch center to Fond du Lac, or two, this council and this community say, ‘We’re going to make that investment within our dispatch center and we need to pay for this somehow.’”
He re-emphasized the community is not at risk right now of not having service should the system go down as it can transfer those calls to Fond du Lac the “vast majority” of its 911 calls come in by cell phone now anyways through the county.
Ald. Howard Hansen noted “this is a huge decision for not just the eight of us, but for the community. Because of the magnitude of it, maybe we need to set up a night or two for the citizens to come down, be able to see all the information, hear from the chiefs of their departments, give them information and say, ‘This is what it’s going to cost. Are you guys willing to pay for this or do we transfer?’”
Hansen added he’s “talked to quite a few people regarding this” and he believes they were “thinking with their hearts and not their heads as much.” Regardless of that, he thinks it’s important to get the facts out to the city of Ripon residents so they can “see the black and white” to make the decision “a lot easier.”
“Do we turn around and make a decision? Does it go to a referendum? Those are things that we can think about, but the biggest thing would be to set up a couple of times to have open house for the citizens to come down,” Hansen said.
Wallner was not opposed to that idea, but cautioned that he believes it’s important that Rich and himself meet with the county and get all the facts before that were to happen.
“I think the first step in slowing this down a little bit,” the Ripon police chief said. “There is no way that we can fulfill this process by the time that Jan. 1 rolls around regarding the decision either way; that just can’t happen based on the enormity of the decision and what needs to happen. So I think the purpose here tonight is to say, ‘Let’s just slow down. Let’s make a good decision here and the first step in that decision is making sure that we have all of our facts in regards to costs, the savings, those type of issues, requirements, other things that are going to have to happen.”