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Emergency call center merger back on the table

A consortium of 26 fire and emergency service agencies has recommended that all jurisdictions in Jackson County consolidate into a centralized 9-1-1 call center to provide the best possible service, even though it could end up costing more.

"I believe we need to give the public the best service we can," said Eagle Point Police Chief Dave Strand, chairman of the board of directors for the Southern Oregon Regional Communications. "SORC said let's consolidate. Now it's up to Medford."

He said combining everything under one roof would provide more efficient routing of calls and quicker response times in emergencies.

Under the proposal, SORC, which handles the bulk of emergency dispatch calls in the county, would consolidate with Medford, which has its own dispatch center and also handles Ashland calls. If combined, the center would have 12 supervisors and 41 dispatchers to handle a 24-hour operation.

The action comes after Jackson County began building a new headquarters for SORC at the Medford airport that would have enough room for a combined operation. SORC currently is housed in the Jackson County Courthouse, which could suffer severe damage in an earthquake.

The cost of consolidation is not clear. A study by Palo Alto, Calif.-based Matrix Consulting Group found the savings by combining Medford's operation with SORC would be $433,000. Both Medford and SORC have budgets of more than $2 million annually.

But Strand said SORC's own analysis found shortcomings in the Matrix conclusions.

The bulk of the savings would come by cutting personnel and creating 12-hour shifts that would begin at 11 p.m. and end at 11 a.m.

Strand said the dispatcher job already is difficult and stressful and has a high attrition rate.

"It would be rough on their health," he said, adding that the long shifts would contribute to more mistakes from tired dispatchers and would make the positions difficult to fill.

"Who would want to work those shifts?" he asked. "I was against it and so were a lot of the others."

Strand said SORC is still analyzing how much the consolidation would cost each subscribing member.

Eagle Point pays just over $81,000 for its share annually. Some of the smaller subscribers like Crater Lake National Park and Butte Falls pay a flat rate.

Strand said the subscribers realized there would be a higher cost, but thought the benefits of better service would be worth it.

"Nobody had any heartburn over it last night," he said Thursday. "It'll go up, but we don't know how much."

Medford Police Chief Randy Schoen said SORC did a lot of work trying to be objective, and he sees some strong reasons to consolidate.

"With what we know today, the consolidation is in the best interest of the public," he said. "But the devil's in the details."

Schoen will present SORC's findings and also answer additional questions in the near future when he takes the proposal before the Medford city manager and City Council.

According to the information provided by SORC, Schoen said it appears Medford would pay roughly the same annually for dispatch service under the consolidation proposal. Consolidating dispatch centers would also help Medford, because the current center is housed in cramped quarters that aren't as secure as Schoen would like.

He said some employees are worried about their jobs, but added, "We've assured our folks that no financial harm comes to them."

Schoen said he hasn't heard of any resistance to the idea of combining call centers with SORC in the city of Medford, though there have been plenty of questions.

Joining forces with other emergency agencies makes sense — for example, Medford and Central Point use different dispatch centers but share borders with one and other, said Schoen.

In addition, he said cell phone users often get sent to different dispatch centers, he said.

"The bottom line that we're talking about is that when a person picks up the phone that person wants to make sure their call gets to the right agency," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.