State and local governments around the country continue to struggle with the budget crisis. Less money is available, and tax payers are less and less willing to shore up the current system with an increase in taxes. Budget restraints have created pay freezes, forced days off and staffing shortages.
Without an end in sight, government and public safety leaders have to look at solutions outside business as usual. One idea creating an uproar throughout public safety unions and with employees themselves is the new trend of privatizing 911/police dispatch services.
Donald Cohen is Executive Director in the Public Interest for the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the union that represents most police telecommunications operators. Cohen says the idea of privatizing such a vital public service is the wrong solution. “It adds complexities in something you want simple and streamlined,” Cohen says. On the other hand, private industry leaders are saying they have more to offer cash-strapped agencies that can no longer continue to run services the old way.
Lawrence Consalvos, President and Chief Operating Officer of iXP Corp. states, “It’s really a fiscal crisis that is driving public safety officials to look at alternatives that are cost effective,” he states. With everyone trying to find solutions that will provide the best for both citizens and employees, both sides of the public/private debate have to show they can provide quality service at a reasonable cost.
Quality of device
Although budget constraints and the cost of running emergency police services seem to be the driving force behind the current crisis, both sides feel quality of service should be the real topic. “A lot of arguments they make are about cost, which shows there is a problem with the question. The discussion should be how to give high quality service first. If you start the conversation on cost, you could always get something cheaper,” explains Cohen. He argues cost shouldn’t be the point, but rather how to get the quality service, good systems and upgrades, training and management for the workforce, as well as strategy with continuous innovation. “It’s training, upgrading services, opportunity for advancement, good HR practices—then costs,” he adds.
Current concerns are that municipalities are too financially strapped to meet their dedicated high quality of service. “The question that needs to be asked is, ‘Can public safety agencies provide a quality of service within these budget constraints?’” says Consalvos.
Cohen argues private companies cannot provide the same level: “We get past the rhetoric about saving money. What we want is good quality public safety and what we need to get there. It’s not magic. There’s a lot of common sense. When they privatized prisons, wages went way down and the turnover has gone way up.” Operations and personnel policies are essential to quality service, he adds.
“It’s about good quality management of public service,” Cohen says. “It’s our job to treat employees well with good wages and due process. It’s real people we’re talking about.”
Many concerns about a private 911 service revolve around what kind of people will they hire. Good police telecommunications work has elements of both nature and nurture. Many believe it is a calling that requires a certain personality and demeanor that is supplemented by good initial and ongoing training, as well as a comfortable work environment with quality, up-to-date equipment and room to grow professionally. iXP, which currently holds three contracts with a dozen more in the works, says they can meet this challenge. Consalvos states iXP improves quality of service by standardizing training, applying for agency accreditation and having a level of service based on a pay-for-performance model. “This creates a striving in the work force to perform,” he explains.