Lagging technology, increasing fees and little say in how funds are spent have north-valley law enforcement and emergency response leaders shopping for a dispatcher.
Crested Butte Fire Protection District, Crested Butte Marshal’s Office and Mt. Crested Butte Police are considering ending their relationship with Gunnison Regional Communications Center and contracting with a company out of Montrose. Should such an agreement be reached with Western Colorado Regional Dispatch Center (WestCo), the new service would not begin until 2021.
However, such a change could mean challenges in communication between local agencies and higher costs for remaining users of the service.
Gunnison dispatch currently serves 10 agencies and acts as an enterprise fund under the City of Gunnison. As such, the fund operates much like a business. Revenue comes from fees assessed on each member through a specific formula, according to Gunnison Police Chief Keith Robinson, with 20 percent received in 911 funds directed by the state Public Utilities Commission.
The total proposed budget for the Communications Fund in 2020 is $810,756.
The local dispatch center provides communication services to all emergency service users in Gunnison, Hinsdale and parts of Saguache counties. It’s staffed by 11 full-time employees.
Funding decisions, however, are not decided by the members. Rather, those decisions ultimately are approved by City Council. The communications board — comprised of representatives that use the service — simply functions as an advisory body.
That’s part of the reason incident responders at the north end of the valley are looking elsewhere for service.
“We’re exploring our options,” said Mt. Crested Butte Police Chief Nate Stepanek. “Right now we don’t have a lot of say (in expenditures.) If we join WestCo, we have a governing vote on that agency board.”
Less cost, better technology
WestCo was formed in 2015 and merged with Montrose County Sheriff’s Office Dispatch about two years ago. It serves 16 agencies, spanning from Telluride to Fruita and surrounding areas.
WestCo operates on the 800 Mhz Digital Trunked Radio (DTR) system, which has the ability to transmit throughout the state. Colorado State Patrol operates on a DTR system and dispatches statewide.
Both Stepanek and Crested Butte Fire Protection District CEO Sean Caffrey complained that the Gunnison dispatch system is antiquated, operating on a Very High Frequency radio wave system which relies on line of sight.
“There are concerns that the communication infrastructure has suffered from neglect and underinvestment in the last 10-15 years,” said Caffrey. “The radio system is outdated. The computer dispatch system is older and does not serve our ongoing needs very well.”
Stepanek also noted that dispatch fees have been increasing over a five-year period. Caffrey said in his financial analysis, the Crested Butte fire district could reduce current fees by one-third.
Yet, members of the law enforcement community have expressed concern about the potential move taking place, noting that Montrose is almost 100 miles from Crested Butte and may be unfamiliar with the area.
But both Stepanek and Caffrey said WestCo’s location has no bearing on the quality of service it can provide the northvalley agencies. Stepanek noted WestCo — like most dispatch companies — utilizes GIS mapping. Caffrey offered that the north valley is remote from any dispatching service thereby leveling the playing field.
“We’re the small town at the end of the road. We’ll always be a dot on the map,” Caffrey said. “I don’t think the Gunnison dispatchers have great knowledge of our area either. With technology, (a dispatcher) could be anywhere in the state.”
Stepanek noted that the final decision is not his. Rather, it rests with Town Manager Joe Fitzpatrick and Mt. Crested Butte Town Council.
Fitzpatrick told the Times on Monday that he was inclined to work things out locally with hopes of improving the system.
“I think people have awoken to the challenge of what’s going on related to frequency, equipment and cost … and who has a voice and voting position on the board,” Fitzpatrick said.
Crested Butte Marshal Mike Reily was unable to be reached for comment.
Impacts could be felt valleywide
Yet, there’s a growing sentiment that the three north-valley agencies disbanding from dispatch would have a noticeable impact on the community at large — especially in regard to emergency response.
During an Oct. 2 meeting of the communications board, county Emergency Manager Scott Morrill exhorted the group to forgo moving to another dispatcher. Rather, he advocated for those agencies to help improve the current system.
Morrill, according to meeting minutes, reminded those present that a split in dispatch communications in Montrose — prior to the Sheriff’s Office joining WestCo — did not work. He said it was important to salvage the current system to preserve intergovernmental cooperation within the valley and avoid increased costs for citizens.
Should the three northvalley agencies sever ties with Gunnison dispatch, they would take roughly one-third — or more than a quarter of a million dollars — of the Communications Fund budget. Gunnison Police Chief Robinson said since the enterprise fund functions like a business, loss of revenue would result in higher costs for the remaining partners — or a decrease in service.
“There may be reduced costs in terms of personnel due to reduced call volume, but the 24-hour coverage issue would remain,” City Finance Director Ben Cowan added in an e-mail. “It would be fair to say there would be significant cost increases to remaining users as a result of their departure.”
During a budget workshop with Gunnison County Commissioners Tuesday, the impact from the potential split was discussed between Sheriff John Gallowich and County Manager Matthew Birnie.
Both agreed that the situation could pose problems for how an agreement between the Sheriff’s Office and Mt. Crested Butte is applied in the future. Currently, Mt. Crested Butte officers patrol the unincorporated county north of mile marker 19 on Hwy. 135 on behalf of the Sheriff’s Office (see related story).
Should Mt. Crested Butte Police switch dispatchers, the two agencies potentially would be communicating on different radio frequencies and towers, which Gallowich said could affect operations.
None of the parties involved said a final decision has been made and all are still participating in talks with the other stakeholders. One such discussion is being held today, Oct. 31 among the members of the communications board.
“Everybody wants better communications,” Robinson admitted.
(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org .)