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January 30, 2011

Ga. cities explore 911 options

By Andria Simmons
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. — A growing number of Gwinnett County communities are looking to establish 911 call centers, absorbing a county role that city leaders say could improve police response times —- and the bottom line.

County officials don't oppose the idea, but they question the need.

Gwinnett County opened a $15.2 million, state-of-the-art 911 communications center in Lawrenceville in December 2009 that can identify the location from where an emergency call is made.

"The system we have in place does work well for the entire county, including the people that live inside the city limits," county spokesman Joe Sorenson said. "Why build a new system?"

Still, several cities are exploring the option, saying the center would benefit their residents and help their tight budgets.

If the Gwinnett communities push ahead with their plans, 911 fees would cover most of their expenses. Residents pay $1.30 for land lines and $1 for cell phones to help fund 911 operations. Last year, those fees brought in $12.6 million to the county's 911 fund, which has a balance of $32 million.

Lawrenceville, Norcross and Snellville, which have existing police departments and dispatchers, are gathering data from the phone companies and crunching the numbers for equipment and staffing. Duluth and Suwanee are entertaining the idea, as well.

The concept is not new. Twenty-one Georgia cities already have 911 centers, including nine in Fulton County and three apiece in Clayton, Cobb and DeKalb counties.

Lawrenceville, Norcross and Snellville say preliminary findings show a positive cash flow after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment costs —- and possible staff increases.

Snellville, for instance, expects to spend $175,000 for 911 software that identifies the location and caller with the phone number. The city also expects to add two more police dispatchers, at a cost of about $78,400 annually, to its seven-person staff, according to figures provided by Police Chief Roy Whitehead.

Whitehead projects revenue from land lines and cell phones to be $264,019. Minus personnel expenses and routing fees, Snellville officials will come out ahead by $152,378, he said.

"There just really is not a downside for the city," Snellville Mayor Pro Tem Barbara Bender said.

The county expects little impact on its 911 center's operations if emergency calls for the cities went away.

Gwinnett 911 operations manager Angie Conley said only 1.6 percent of the 38,000 land-line calls received each month are for Lawrenceville.

Only 0.3 percent are for Norcross. Conley did not know the number of calls received for other cities but believes it is similarly small.

What is less clear is how emergency response times would be affected by the transition.

Currently, 911 calls from Gwinnett city residents are routed to the county dispatch, which then relays the information to the city's police department.

About 90 percent of 911 calls are logged as police activity, and 10 percent are for fire and emergency services.

Cities say there is an occasional time lag of up to a few minutes when police calls are transferred to them, and even longer if a call is dropped. If cities established their own 911 system, those delays would be eliminated.

"I live in a gated community with older people. We need ambulances and 911 quickly," longtime Snellville resident Marilyn Swinney said. "If I have to wait for the call to be transferred from Gwinnett to Snellville ... that's no good."

But calls for help with fires and medical emergencies within the cities could take longer. Those calls would have to be forwarded to the county to dispatch the Department of Fire and Emergency Services.

Sorenson worries about city dwellers who need medical or fire services if cities start acting as a go-between.

"Our biggest concern is that there will be a delay on medical calls," Sorenson said. "When you're having a heart attack, minutes count."

Lawrenceville Police Chief Randy Johnson said his main priority is improving safety, and he thinks a 911 call center would benefit both the city and county. Already, Lawrenceville has approved a resolution to establish a center, he said. The next step is to get the City Council's blessing for equipment funding and final approval from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

Subtracting for the cost of equipment and personnel, Johnson gives a ballpark figure of $120,000 as the city's gain.

"It's mainly a safety issue, but anything you can do while having a revenue source is a plus, these days especially," he said.

It's no coincidence that talk of separate 911 centers comes as Gwinnett cities are engaged in a dispute with the county over the delivery of services such as policing, public health and road maintenance.

City leaders say the battle, which is still pending in court, has prompted them to look at ways to become more self-reliant.

"It's kind of provided the forum for the cities to really share the details of how they operate," said Bender, Snellville's mayor pro tem. "It's not vengeful-driven. It's really looking at best practices."

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