If you dial 911 in Pinellas County, a person answers your call in the basement of a building in downtown Clearwater, and, if a crime is involved, transfers your call to your local law enforcement agency, often many miles away.
Then you have to tell your story all over again to a dispatcher, who sends out a police officer or deputy.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is trying to do away with that redundancy by talking up a regional 911 communications system, with both 911 call takers and police dispatchers working together under one roof.
Any municipality choosing to join the system including St. Petersburg, Tarpon Springs, Pinellas Park and Largo would be giving up its police dispatch systems, and it’s far from a sure thing all, or any, of them will. Police dispatchers, working out of a city’s police station, are often seen as an integral part of the protection an agency provides.
On Monday, police chiefs, the sheriff and county officials met to discuss the new system, scheduled to be operational in March 2014, in a new Public Safety Complex under construction in Largo, next to the sheriff’s administration building on Ulmerton Road.
The 911 call takers working for Pinellas County Public Safety Services, in that basement at 400 Fort Harrison Ave., will move to the complex, sending ambulances to medical emergencies. Sheriff’s dispatchers will be there, too, sending deputies to check out possible crimes.
What’s in question is whether the other cities’ police dispatchers will be working alongside them.
The Largo Police Department plans to wait and see what the system looks like before making a decision, said agency spokesman Lt. Mike Loux.
Clearwater Police Chief Anthony Holloway was at Monday’s meeting but is still discussing the proposal with his staff, said Elizabeth Watts, Clearwater’s public safety spokeswoman. St. Petersburg police haven’t had enough time to make a decision, said spokesman Bill Proffitt.
In Pinellas Park, the city spent $2 million in 2011 for an integrated computer-aided dispatch system that is also part of the police department’s record system, with officers submitting their reports on it after they answer a call.
“A lot of money we just spent would be for naught,” said Capt. Sanfield Forseth. Still, Pinellas Park Police Chief Dorene Thomas expected to discuss the regional system with other chiefs, to see what their perspectives are, before making a decision.
As of now, the sheriff dispatches for 16 of the 24 municipalities in Pinellas County – the 13 small municipalities that contract with the sheriff for police protection, plus four that have managed to hang on to their small police departments: Kenneth City, Belleair, Gulfport and Indian Shores.
At Monday’s meeting, those in attendance were given a broad framework of the regional system. It touched on, among other things, which city employees would be able to keep their jobs if the departments they work for went with the sheriff’s office. Police dispatchers could stay with their departments, but anyone else in communications would have to find other jobs.
Gualtieri said he cannot make the cities give up their dispatch systems.
“If the cities don’t join, I have no control over it,” he said.
In any event, the current system is antiquated and out of step with what’s been happening in other parts of the state and the United States.
“It’s inefficient and it’s cost-prohibitive,” he said.
“You have to tell your story a minimum of twice to two different people, and that’s not right,” the sheriff said. “A consolidated communication system is the way to go.”
And there’s no doubt money will be saved through the streamlined process, Gualtieri said. It’s just too early to saw how much exactly.