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Woonsocket may have to wait for dispatch savings

January 24, 2012

WOONSOCKET — The city may have to wait a bit longer for any savings to materialize out of its plans to consolidate emergency dispatch services at the police station.
Mayor Leo T. Fontaine told members of the City Council during a work session in the Harris Hall conference room that the consolidation plan may have to be done in stages due to difficulties that have cropped up in moving all dispatching equipment to a single location.
The change to a dispatch system staffed by civilian employees at the police station had been included as a cost savings measure in the city's current budget.
The city has negotiated the staffing changes needed to allow the consolidation with the participating municipal unions, but still has not been able to complete the shift of fire department dispatch operations to the police station on Clinton Street due to infrastructure and database concerns, according to Fontaine.
The need for the change has not diminished, and in fact has only been compounded by a recent round of fire department retirements, according to Fontaine, City Finance Director Thomas M. Bruce, III, and Fire Chief Gary Lataille.
As a result, the administration is now asking the City Council to approve a list of line item adjustments to cover the costs of the new retirements and also the unanticipated delay in implementing the savings plan.
“An ordinance has been put together to address all of those things and a lot of that money is being shifted from other areas of the fire department budget,” Fontaine said. The changes will also allow the administration to hire at least four of the civilian dispatchers needed to get the staffing change up and running even if the two departments must continue to use separate dispatch hardware systems.
The fire department currently uses its dispatch duties as entry level positions in the department, and those employees have traditionally worked their way into a firefighter position after receiving the necessary training, according to Lataille.
The change proposed under the restructuring plan would move existing fire department dispatchers into floating firefighter roles in an effort to reduce overtime related to unfilled department vacancies. The floating staff members will cover vacation and sick time vacancies on department shifts to reduce the number of firefighters called back on overtime. The department will also see its staffing drop from 123 members to 117 as a result of the change.
That reduction will come even as the department copes with the loss of veteran members due to retirements. The recent retirement of three of the department's veteran members has pushed the number of retirements this year to 12, Lataille told the councilors, a number exceeding department retirements over the past two fiscal years combined.
Many of the fire department retirements have been spurred by changes in the state's retirement system, and the police department has also seen the impact of the changes on its staff of veteran members.
Police Chief Thomas Carey told the panel that his department has lost three officers to retirement this year and another member will be retiring soon. The pension changes, however, have at least 16 eligible department members also weighing the possibility of retirement depending on the General Assembly's action on pension matters.
The staffing loss also impacts the Police Department's operations, which already relies on two civilian dispatchers to work each of its three daily shifts and uses overtime to fill vacancies on those shifts due to sick leave or vacation time.
The city must fund the retirement costs and payouts for unused sick time and vacation days in its current budget, and will likely need to make additional funding transfers into those accounts to cover the unanticipated higher costs, Bruce told the panel.
Members of the council voiced concern that the proposed changes in dispatch operations will not generate the savings anticipated in the current budget when it was approved.
“It doesn't sound like this will get done in this fiscal year,” City Councilman Roger Jalette Sr. said after listening to Fontaine's review of the plan. Councilman Robert Moreau also questioned whether the plan can be carried out given the differences between the two city public safety departments. “Just because we need to get it done, doesn’t mean it can be done,” Moreau said.
But while the fire department dispatch operation may not be rolled entirely into the police system due to its differing data requirements, Fontaine said it still may be possible to locate the operation at the police station with a shift of the dispatch area to a larger room now used by the traffic division, and the civilian employees hired in time to generate significant reductions in fire department overtime costs. The combined operation, three civilian employees operating the fire and police dispatch systems on each shift, could be up and running in three to four weeks, according to Fontaine.
For now, the council will have to transfer a total of $962,980 between fire and police department accounts to cover the unanticipated overtime and retirement costs, Bruce told the panel. The measure will be on the agenda for the council's next meeting.

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