The City of Zephyrhills has proudly operated its own police and dispatch for over a century, dating back to 1914 to be exact.
Some of this autonomy could be altered in coming years, however.
With technology advancements and rampant growth on the East Pasco town’s doorstep, local leaders are evaluating the existing operating model for public safety.
The Zephyrhills Police Department (ZPD) and other city officials are considering various ways to upgrade and improve its 911 dispatch communications and records management technology.
At least one possibility includes consolidating and integrating those services with Pasco County, in an effort to improve efficiency and public safety, among other reasons.
The Zephyrhills City Council conducted a 90-minute workshop presentation on the issue last month.
Council members reached a consensus that it’s time to proceed with a feasibility study to account for cost factors, planning and transition of a 911 systems merger.
Some possible routes for such study are via the Police Executive Research Forum, through an academic institution such as the University of South Florida, or with the help of a consulting firm.
“This is a big deal, so we need to know what we’re getting into,” said Zephyrhills Council President Charles Proctor.
Here’s how the communications system currently works: The municipality’s central dispatch handles all landline 911 calls and other non-emergency calls within city limits.
But Pasco County Emergency Communications, based in New Port Richey, answers 100% of wireless cellphone 911 calls, even those within Zephyrhills.
After a briefing with the wireless caller, county dispatchers transfer the call to ZPD dispatch. Dispatchers at ZPD proceed to ask a similar line questions from the 911 caller — such as exact location, name and phone number — and determine whether to send an officer on scene.
Zephyrhills Police Chief Derek Brewer acknowledged this multi-step verification and county-to-city wireless call transfer creates “some redundancy” and at times becomes “a very lengthy process,” often due to voluminous confirmation protocols required by the county.
The police chief underscored the issue by mentioning that a local wireless 911 caller sometimes may be asked to confirm his or her name three times or more, even before identifying their particular emergency or situation.
Said Brewer: “I can understand if you’re going through those protocols as a 911 caller and you’re going through an emergency, and then having to get transferred, they’re probably upset, that they just want an officer or EMS or whatever.”
Another shortfall with the current model — there’s the chance of wireless call transfers getting dropped in transit between county and city dispatch.
Multiple options on the table
Zephyrhills leaders previously considered dispatch consolidation in 2012.
The plan wasn’t implemented due to potential costs and a view by stakeholders that a merger with the county wouldn’t be beneficial at the time.
But with marked increases in cellphone usage, surging residential growth and corresponding cutting of landlines, city leaders are again considering the possibility of an operational overhaul.
Since 2012, wireless transfer calls have increased from about 55% to 62%, and the figures are only expected to increase in coming years, officials say.
Brewer introduced three options for city leaders to consider:
- Remain status quo — continue to operate in the same manner
- Hybrid consolidation — create a mixture of a centralized and localized system. The city would remain as a standalone communications center but would share a common CAD/RMS (computer-aided dispatch/record management system) with Pasco County.
- Full consolidation — consolidate into a centrally located communications center for all emergency personnel and shared CAD/RMS system, to eliminate 911 calls being answered by dispatches from different agencies and the need to transfer callers
A full dispatch consolidation model would mirror what’s now in place at the Dade City Police Department (DCPD), which joined Pasco’s 911 system in 2015.
Under this setup, the county handles all 911 calls, prioritizing calls by importance and dispatching city or county units accordingly, on the same radio frequency. At the same time, Dade City police employees answer all non-emergency calls.
When there’s a municipal landline call requiring assistance, Dade City police call-taking employees simply enter information into a shared CAD/RMS system. From there, the county dispatches the closest unit, whether it’s Dade City police, sheriff’s deputies, or both.
Benefits to dispatch consolidation
Brewer outlined multiple benefits associated with a communications merger — particularly the improved safety for law enforcement officers and the general public.
A consolidated system between city and county may prove particularly useful when responding to critical incidents, he said.
“All (city and county) officers would have the same information simultaneously and would allow for greater situational awareness,” he explained. “I think being able to respond in a coordinated manner would certainly provide better safety for our citizens.”
The police chief shared various examples of high-profile emergency response communication failures, like the 2018 Parkland school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which claimed the lives of 17 students and school faculty members.
In this particular case, Brewer detailed how the Broward County and Coral Springs Police Department were operating on different communications systems at the time, causing delays in the transfer of 911 calls. The calls overloaded the 911 system and overwhelmed staff. Meanwhile, officers and deputies on scene were unable to merge radio traffic, thus preventing information exchange of the shooter’s location and description. Also, the antiquated radio system became impaired at one point, further impeding communication among units.
Removing redundancy and improving efficiency, along with interoperability, enhanced mapping capabilities and shared costs would be other plusses under a merger, Brewer said.
Cybersecurity enhancements would likely result, too.
“They (Pasco County) have layers upon layers upon layers of protection over there to protect themselves from cyberattacks,” Brewer said. “While I think we do a good job as a municipality, I don’t think we have the protections that they do.”
Moreover, ZPD is also working toward seeking police accreditation, whereby “there will be expectations for certain protocols, certain technology that we’ll have to take into consideration,” Brewer said.
Drawbacks to dispatch consolidation
Reservations regarding a consolidation model include the loss of local control and the required levels of data sharing between city and county law enforcement, particularly as it pertains to internal investigations and confidential information.
“There’s a lot of different circumstances where we’d want to have control over our own information,” Brewer said.
“I have a lot of pride where I work and I feel like we provide a good service to our citizens, and losing some of that control scares me a little,” he said.
While response times to emergencies may be improved in some instances, the comprehensive level of service Zephyrhills residents and businesses have been accustomed could take a hit, if the county is put in charge of dispatching all units.
That’s because the city’s team of dispatchers — many who’ve accrued long tenures in their role — have a heightened familiarity with community members and landmarks to quickly discern where to send units, even with limited information, officials say.
Also, besides handling pressing matters, ZPD “pretty much responds to everything” including vacation house checks and neighborhood noise complaints, Brewer said.
In these scenarios, county dispatchers may opt to not deploy units, given their lower priority level.
Zephyrhills City Manager Billy Poe highlighted this dynamic during the workshop: “I will tell you that the sheriff’s office cannot provide the same level of service that ZPD provides the citizens of Zephyrhills. They cannot do it. The calls that we respond to, they say, ‘Thank you, but we’re not coming.’ — so the level of service would just not be matched.
“If somebody goes on vacation and says, ‘Hey I think I left my door unlocked.’ We respond. The sheriff’s office says, ‘You better call your neighbor or family member, have them go check.’ That’s just an example of the level of service that we provide.”
Published March 03, 2021