When the Springfield Township Fire Department shifts its dispatching operation to Lucas County's 911 center next month, it could be symbolic of how its fire calls - and possibly others - are handled.
Springfield Township Fire Chief Barry Cousino said the move is an effort to establish a countywide fire dispatch system apart from the Lucas County Sheriff's Office, which dispatches for several townships.
And Springfield Township, which dispatches its own fire calls from a station in the township, is offering its services to other area departments.
Springfield Township has been in tense negotiations with the county for police protection since the announcement in June that townships would be billed for the dispatching and law enforcement services the county formerly provided at no charge. Township voters turned down a police levy last week that would have paid for patrol services from the county or from the village of Holland.
"This really has nothing to do with the levy," Chief Cousino said. "This is about a group of fire departments that currently do not have their own dispatch."
He said the plan could bolster the work of fire crews on the scene because fire dispatchers would not split their efforts on police calls.
Chief Cousino said he isn't worried his efforts will create bad blood with the sheriff's office. Conversations about a countywide fire dispatch predated the county's financial issues, he said.
Lucas County Sheriff Jim Telb has spoken in favor of a central fire dispatch, which ultimately would be run cooperatively by area fire chiefs.
Chief Cousino said he did not have estimates of what the dispatching service might cost neighboring townships.
Washington and Jerusalem townships are considering the service.
Larry Stanton, Jerusalem Township fire chief, said: "We're going to probably end up doing it. Until we see numbers, we can't do anything."
Fire chiefs like the concept of dispatchers dedicated full time to fire calls, but some public safety experts warn that such an endeavor might be risky and expensive.
"I can't think of one reason why it would be more economical to do that," said Christine Andrysiak, an emergency response consultant with the firm Plante & Moran. "Has that been done? Yes. Is it an optimal solution? No."
In central Ohio, the Columbus Division of Fire regularly rotates its own firefighters from the field to dispatch for emergencies in the city and three surrounding townships.
David Whiting, a Columbus fire battalion chief, said his fire crews can employ their field experience as dispatchers.
"They're thinking ahead, 'They may need these resources,'•" he said. Monitoring multiple law enforcement agencies could distract a dispatcher, Chief Whiting said.
"If one of our firefighters goes into a building and goes through a floor, they only get one opportunity to cue their mic and say, 'Mayday, we need some help,'•" he said. "Someone's not paying attention, that could be the difference between life and death."
Clifford Mason is president of the Ohio Fire Chiefs Association and fire chief in Franklin County's Madison Township, a department dispatched out of Columbus.
Chief Mason, who has worked in other departments with dispatchers cross-trained for police calls, said he "has no personal preference for one or the other."
"It's a matter of what works in your community and certainly what works for the dispatchers," he said. "Probably most important is the government agencies are using the taxpayer money in the most appropriate and the most frugal way."
In Fairfax County, Virginia, sheriff's dispatchers are trained in both police and fire emergency calls but are assigned to just one or the other during a work shift at their new communications center.
"At the dispatch level, it's really good for the fire service if you have somebody that is more concerned and more knowledgeable about what are the needs of the fire service," said Alan Caldwell, a retired fire chief there and a senior adviser on governmental relations for the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
He added that an experienced fire dispatcher might have more initiative to send additional services, such as special investigators or backup, to the scene.
"Its just a greater sensitivity to what some of the demands are."
No reliable statistics are available on which system - using fire-only dispatchers or those also trained for police calls - might be more effective, said Philip Schaenman, a public safety consultant.
"Both models work," said Mr. Schaenman, president of the Tridata division of System Planning Corporation in Arlington, Va. "Often using the combination of police, fire, and emergency medical [dispatchers] is more efficient and has some real advantages in large emergencies."
Many communities seem to be doing the opposite of what Chief Cousino is proposing, working to combine their police and fire dispatching to save cash in a tough economy, said Christine Andrysiak, consulting manager for the firm Plante & Moran. She researches the feasibility of major public safety projects from the firm's Southfield, Mich., office.
Tying police and fire dispatching also typically offers better response time to emergencies. Adding another arm of the dispatch could delay calls as they are transferred by the sheriff's call takers, she said.
"It creates a delay in the service time," Ms. Andrysiak said. "We've typically found that delay can be 30 to 45 seconds, which might not sound like a big deal, but it is. If I'm having a heart attack, it's a pretty big deal."
Here in Lucas County, conversations on how the fire chiefs would form a regional fire dispatch remain in the early stages.
Monclova Township Fire Chief Kevin Bernhard said he would support a regional fire dispatch, but until the fire chiefs detail how they would cooperatively govern it, his department will stick with its dispatching contract with Maumee.
Springfield's offer "is the same service I currently have," Chief Bernhard said, adding that he's resisted township trustee's efforts to shop elsewhere for service. Monclova has contracted with Maumee since the early 1990s and pays $50,000 per year for dispatching service.
"We're not interested in pitting one community against another," Chief Bernhard said. "Unless Maumee increases my rates significantly, we're going to continue with our current contract and see what happens with the countywide system."
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