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.
Concerns of who will be hired enter into most discussions of privatization. Will the workers be qualified? Will they receive enough wages to keep turnover low? Will the company outsource overseas? All of these questions and more crop up when you are talking about a community’s first responders.
“We do a wage analysis survey of a geographic area,” says Consalvos. “Our pay is a little bit higher than what the surrounding territory offers because our goal is to recruit and retain the best candidates.” The company offers full health care and a 401k with a company match for full-time and part-time employees. The company offers performance-based bonus awards of $700 to $3,000 a year, including a quarterly peer-awarded iXP award.
Individuals seeking employment with iXP must go through a hiring process that includes an interview, criminal background check and testing procedures. At iXP’s Georgia center, 90 percent of their employees came from other agencies and call centers. “We absolutely believe in our model and our employees,” states Consalvos.
Training is another key item to providing quality of service, and one in which many agencies face the inability to provide both initially and on-going. “We use APCO training,” states Consalvos. “We do EMD.” iXP encourages all employees to participate in public safety communication groups such as the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO). “They are important to the industry,” he explains. APCO declined to make a statement regarding the issue.
In a public agency, most increases in wages and benefits are negotiated. The union debates with government managers to come up with cost of living and salary increases. As you earn longevity, your pay increases regardless of performance. With iXP, employees earn their keep. “Besides the economic benefits, we are under a performance matrix,” says Consalvos. “We have staffing requirements and call time requirements. We’ll step up to those standards contractually.” The company passes those performance requirements on to their employees expecting a level of service that provides quality. Based on this, employees work under a pay-for-performance matrix.
One of the concerns about privatization is operators will no longer know their area or be familiar with the officers they work with. iXP counters this. “Our communications centers have to be in the regional area for the communities we support,” says Consalvos. “They have to be close to the public safety agencies so they can participate in ride-alongs, and so public safety people can come in and spend time in the center.”
Although neither side believes cost is the most important factor in determining whether 911/police dispatching services should remain public, it is the main reason driving governments to look at alternatives. “The long term cost of employees doesn’t end when the employee retires,” Consalvos says. Entering into a private contract creates financial predictability, he explains, stating they can enter into a long-term fixed price contract. He uses Arizona as an example, “They are facing budgetary limitations due to long term pensions. They can no longer put firefighters or police officers on the street because they are paying for employees that are no longer providing a service.”
Cohen doesn’t believe the fiscal solution is out-sourcing, but improving from within. “I want to invest in them and high quality management,” explains Cohen. “It’s about good or not good management not about going private.”
Cohen states public service should be just that—public. One of the main reasons is accountability. “We have the ultimate ability to vote in and vote out the people that make the choices,” says Cohen. “You remove accountability when you get further out. The private company is accountable to more than just us. When you have a public safety controlled and managed by the public, you have complete control over the workforce and the ability to be flexible.
Cohen questions the ability of a private company to “redact, respond and adjust to changes.” Consalvos argues the employees at iXP come from the public safety world. “We are police officers, firefighters and EMTs,” he states. “We have a public safety mindset. This is where the management of our company have long and distinguished careers in public safety. We have a public safety focus with operations, technology and governing perspectives.”
Cohen continues to argue accountability. “Private companies need to make a return on investment,” Cohen says. “I’d rather a dispatcher make $60,000 with secure benefits and not be stressed out at work, then the company making the 10 or 12 percent rate of return.” He also reminds that without good monitoring the public could get taken.
Consalvos counters their contracts are public record and include performance, oversight and transition clauses, all of which are designed to give the public the best service, management and ability to transition back to a public call center if they are not pleased with the service.
A case study: Lawrence
On April 1, 2013, an iXP contracted call center went live in Lawrence, NJ and police chief Dan Posluszny has nothing but good things to say about the change. “We’ve been in a budget crunch for a couple of years,” he states about his township and the state as a whole. “We had spoken about consolidation at one point and looking at dispatch services.” Prior to contracting with iXP, Lawrence’s dispatch center only had five of its nine positions filled, requiring the township to take officers off the street to fill the gaps. “It was difficult for us to retain good candidates, train and maintain them,” Posluszny explains.
On January 22, 2103, after a 4-0 vote, Lawrence became the first town in New Jersey to privatize their 911 services. iXP won in the RFP process, receiving a two-year contract paying $719,400 a year to run the emergency dispatch services. This saves the township over $1.1 million over five years when compared to the cost of having officers fill vacancies. Without the officers factored in, the cost was very similar to the bid entered to keep dispatch internal. All current employees were encouraged to apply with the new company.
“For the first year, we matched their salary and then went to pay-for-performance,” says Consalvos. “We had 400 applicants for 14 openings; 40 applicants have prior public safety experience, not only dispatchers but police officers and fire personnel as well. We have a waiting list.”
As far as familiarity with the town…which was a big concern prior to the change…Posluszny states, “When everything is done computer-aided with standard operating procedures at your fingertips, knowing the town is not really that important.” Posluszny explains the testing, hiring and training is better than anything they had to offer. “They had the ability to pick it up and move on and get to a high level of operating very quickly,” says Posluszny.
“I love it. The service is so much better.” Posluszny believes the reason behind all the positives is the company. “If you get a good company with [iXP’s] background and their ability, I don’t see it as a negative,” Posluszny states. “The whole idea is to provide 911 to the public and they do that. Win-win for the community all around.”
Cohen and many police telecommunications operators still have doubts when it comes to turning over a vital public service to a for-profit corporation. “When you have somebody calling in an emergency and you need highly trained people with closed managerial control that are the linchpin between you being saved, that is the last thing I want to take out of control of the public,” explains Cohen. Consalvos disagrees. “It’s a different model,” he states. “But for some it’s a viable opportunity. There is a lot of fear. Part of the fear is fear of change.”
As budgets continue to strain public services, officials will have to start thinking outside the norm. As this happens, we might even see the job stay the same while the boss changes.