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Officials say new rule for dispatchers could cost more money

A new requirement for 911 call centers to have at least two dispatchers on duty has some area officials wondering how they will comply with and pay for it.

The requirement will take effect if 911 surcharges are increased by legislators. Because the surcharges have not increased since the 1990s, some believe an increase is imminent.

Sixteen of 34 centers across the state do not currently meet the requirement and would need to comply when surcharges go up, said State Sen. Corey Brown, R-Gettysburg. He co-sponsored legislation establishing the rule that was included in another emergency-services bill that lawmakers passed this winter and Gov. Mike Rounds signed last week.

Bon Homme County has one of the affected centers, and Jon Vavruska, county emergency manager/911 coordinator, cited his concern about costs in a letter to the Legislature last month.

The county 911 center in Tyndall employs five people, and the additional cost to cover the 911 center with two dispatchers at all times is roughly $145,000 a year, Vavruska said.

"Bon Homme County is already experiencing tough budgets and looking at making some changes," he said. "The additional cost of adding dispatchers would not be feasible for our county."

The legislation that reached Rounds' desk calls for the State 911 Coordination Board to create rules before Dec. 31 that would specify alternative arrangements that a 911 center could use to comply with the new requirement.

The legislation stemmed from the board approving the two-dispatcher rule last November, said Marlene Haines, board vice chairwoman and communications supervisor for the Mitchell Department of Public Safety.

If the 911 surcharge rises, then 911 centers must comply with the two-dispatcher requirement by July 2013, said Ted Rufledt Jr., board president who works in Rapid City. The board is giving counties or cities that operate 911 centers more time to plan for their budgets, Haines said.

Because the 75-cent surcharge hasn't risen since it was imposed in the early 1990s, she expects that an increase will occur and be reconsidered by state lawmakers next year.

If 911 centers opt not to add dispatchers, they must use technology to back up one center to another, Haines said.

"We feel that strongly about the service we want to give to citizens in South Dakota," she said. "Given the types of calls in the emergency center on any given day and what the demands are for a dispatcher, we believe in the rule and would have liked to have seen this sooner."

Miner County Sheriff Lanny Klinkhammer, whose county is among the 16 not conforming with the regulation, said the county would need to double its budget. He estimated the county's payroll is more than $100,000 for dispatchers.

The county began initial talks with Lake County for finding a solution when a Miner County dispatcher is busy with an emergency call, he said.

Both counties are similar, and the 911 call volume of Miner and Sanborn counties is only 400 a year. Sanborn contracts with Miner County for service.

"With technology, we are working with surrounding counties to take care of that," he said, adding technology would be used to transfer calls back and forth. "We don't see we will have any issue with that."

If Miner County needs to hire dispatchers, Klinkhammer said he might contact neighboring counties -- even ones served by Mitchell Regional 911 Center -- and see if they would be interested in having their northern neighbor provide service.

"We may be able to give them a better deal," he said.

Buffalo County and Bureau of Indian Affairs 911 Center also is on the list.

Mitchell Regional 911 Center, which answers emergency calls from Davison, Aurora, Hanson, Hutchinson, McCook and Brule counties plus Oacoma, is not on the list of deficient centers.

But there are occasions when the center only has one dispatcher on duty between 3 a.m. and 6 or 7 a.m. during the lowest call volume, said Lyndon Overweg, Mitchell public safety chief.

"We would have to comply by 2013," he said, referring to making staffing adjustments.

Overweg said he didn't know how much it would cost the city to ensure that at least two dispatchers work at all times. That will depend on if the city would receive all or a partial 911 surcharge increase, he said.

When asked if there could be an increase in area counties' 911 contract to make up for a difference in the 911 surcharge increase, Overweg said that would depend on how much the latter would rise.