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Debate begins over consolidating 911 services
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The Red River Joint Dispatch Center in Fargo, North Dakota, serves the Fargo-Moorhead area. It's unique because it handles calls from two police departments and two sheriffs departments in two states -- all from one communications center. (MPR Photo/Bob Reha)
Consolidation can be a bad word in rural cities and towns. For decades, services and programs have been consolidated to save money. School districts have been the primary target, but last year, state lawmakers wondered if consolidation could be used in other areas. One idea on the table now is whether to merge dispatch centers that coordinate emergency services.

Moorhead, Minn. — The dispatch center that serves the Fargo-Moorhead area is unique. From one communications center, calls go out to two police departments and two county sheriffs' agencies in two states.

No one forced this consolidation -- it was done voluntarily. Clay County Sheriff Bill Berquist says the arrangement is working well.

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Image Sheriff Bill Berquist

"Criminals don't stop on the borders, and there's times things were happening in Fargo which we may not know about in Moorhead," says Berquist. "So with the joint dispatch, we get the information pretty much instantly. If there's an armed robbery on the north side of Fargo we're going to know it."

Berquist says consolidation of dispatch centers appears to be the coming trend in law enforcement. He says it's an idea that can work well in larger communities. Officials in Minnesota wonder if the success of this joint operation could be duplicated.

Jim Beutelspacher is 911 program manager for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. Beutelspacher is on an advisory committee looking at ways the 911 dispatch centers in Minnesota could be merged, without hurting service.

"There might be some advantage if you're on the same kind of radio system, or if you're going to be putting in a new radio system and so is the other guy," says Beutelspacher. "Or if you've got a big building with a lot of empty space, and the other guy is busting at the seams and would have to buy a new building. There are synergies, timing issues that could make it work."

But some rural law enforcement officials are skeptical, like Otter Tail County Sheriff Brian Schlueter. His county covers an area larger than the state of Delaware. Schlueter says consolidation may be too expensive, especially if new equipment like radios are needed.

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Image Otter Tail County Sheriff Brian Schlueter

"We have 26 fire and rescues and eight police departments -- that's a lot of radio systems right there. We run that off of eight different towers, so you have to monitor those frequencies," says Schlueter. "Other counties are similar because of the geography up here, you have to have multiple towers on the thing. There's just no physical way that you could keep all those types of events straight out of one center."

Schlueter worries consolidation could mean longer response times for emergency calls. He doesn't like the idea that a dispatch center for Otter Tail County could be located 100 miles away, and staffed by people unfamiliar with the area.

"I don't know how many Round Lakes we have. We've got a few Pickerel Lakes and that type of thing," says Schlueter. "If they just call and say, 'I've got this event going' -- if you don't have any other descriptors, if you're not familiar with the geography and the local people and so forth, there's no way you're going to get that call in a timely manner, with the information you need."

Schlueter doubts consolidation will save any money. Jim Beutelspacher of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety says those are legitimate concerns. He says any decision to consolidate centers should give public safety top priority.

"It shouldn't be consolidation for consolidation's sake," says Beutelspacher. "It should be consolidation if a valid study indicates that it would improve public safety, or save money, or both."

Law enforcement officials worry lawmakers will see a chance to save a few dollars. They fear the recommendations will become mandates. The legislative report on 911 consolidation will be released this week.

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