Public Policy Forum Blog

Opportunities abound for upgrading emergency communications in Milwaukee County

In the spring of 2015, the director of Milwaukee County's Office of Emergency Management (OEM) approached the Forum for assistance in answering a set of questions that are precisely the type our organization has urged local government officials to ask since our creation 103 years ago.

OEM had been created at the start of the year as a merger of the County's Emergency Management, Emergency Medical Services, 911 Communications, and Radio Services functions. That prompted County leaders to consider the possibility of a new facility that would house the expanded office and serve as a unified command center that could coordinate emergency response during crises.

Given the potential need to make a sizable capital outlay for a new building, County leaders asked what other County dispatching and communications functions might logically be housed in the new facility to produce greater efficiencies and offsetting savings in other departments. And, going a step further, they asked whether the new facility might house one or more municipal dispatch operations, thus enhancing coordination of countywide dispatching and saving even more taxpayer dollars.   

We address those and related questions in Get Connected: An Analysis of Public Safety 911 Call Taking, Dispatch, and Command Center Services in Milwaukee County. The research – released today – was performed jointly by the Forum and Winbourne Consulting, a nationally recognized public safety communications consultant from Arlington, Virginia.

With regard to County dispatching, our analysis found there is not a pressing case for housing additional departmental dispatching functions in the new OEM facility. However, there are several initiatives that should be undertaken at a relatively modest cost to enhance emergency communications between OEM and dispatchers at the airport, transit system, and highway division.

Similarly, we found that while there is little enthusiasm among municipal officials in Milwaukee County to consolidate existing dispatch operations at this time, there are some immediate steps that should be considered to improve data and dispatch capabilities among all municipalities:

  • CAD-to-CAD – the report proposes a technological solution that would allow Computer-Aided Dispatch data from individual dispatch centers throughout the county to be shared with all other dispatch centers.
  • Common GIS-Based Public Safety Mapping – the report suggests that public safety layers be added to current county-wide GIS mapping efforts and that the enhanced map be integrated with the CAD-to-CAD solution. 
  • Emergency Medical Dispatching – the report recommends development of a county-wide Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD) capability that would build upon recent efforts to provide dispatcher-assisted pre-arrival instructions to 911 callers for cardiac incidents.

While the notion of dispatch consolidation still raises some legitimate concerns among law enforcement officials in Milwaukee County, it's a national trend. We believe it will receive increased attention here as the need for costly technology upgrades and workforce challenges grow.

Consequently, we also developed a case study of a hypothetical consolidation scenario between the City of Wauwatosa and OEM. Our intent is to provide food for thought for any municipality considering potential consolidation of its dispatch center into the OEM Communication Center.

The analysis indicates potential annual net savings of about $150,000 for Wauwatosa in operating and capital expenditures combined. Potential operational improvements include improved dispatch processing times for 911 wireless calls; cost efficiencies in purchasing, technology maintenance, and staffing; and higher retention rates and staff effectiveness through new career ladders and opportunities.

Overall, we find there's plenty of opportunity for increased cooperation in Milwaukee County on the public safety communications front; and that such cooperation has the potential to enhance public safety and – in the case of dispatch consolidation – save taxpayer dollars. The full technical analysis can be accessed here; a report brief summarizing key findings here; and our media release here.

Rob Henken