26 June 2005

NewCom Pulls Plug To Join Allegheny Co.

Officials hesitant about county takeover of 911

By Craig Rice, Staff WriterThursday, June 23, 2005

Newcom, the regional emergency dispatch center that was created in 1996 to benefit residents of numerous North Hills municipalities, pulled the plug on its' phones for good yesterday, June 22.

Gone are the days when in-need-of-assistance locals from 17 communities, including Richland, Marshall, Ross and Pine townships as well as Bradford Woods Borough had their emergency 911 calls routed to the top floor of Shaler Municipal Building where Newcom made its' home. The nine year tenure of Newcom ended this week when it became the fifth of seven former regional emergency dispatch centers in and around Pittsburgh to be absorbed into Allegheny County's 911 system located in North Point Breeze.

"I think it is a good idea," says Dean Bastianini, Richland Township manager. "I think all of us are reluctant to give up on the operations of Newcom because we have a high regard for the staff and the way Newcom was operated. "(Newcom) was a significant improvement over what we had before in terms of technology and it was, I think, respected by everyone for how well it was operated."

Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato lobbied for the consolidation of the seven regional emergency dispatch centers into one county-wide system after taking office last year. Onorato developed a plan to fund the consolidation by raising a monthly 911 charge that appears on county residents' phone bills by 26 cents to $1 a month. An increase that would generate an estimated $1.5 million to support the consolidated system. Some local administrators' employ concern that the level of service will continue as the county assumes responsibility of dispatching emergency calls.

Nonetheless, consolidation will save the 17 municipalities that bought into Newcom considerable sums of money that each paid to the regional center for operation. Richland will to save an estimated $22,000 for the remainder of 2005 and $50,000 the following year, said Bastianini. Pine town manager Gary Koehler estimated a savings of $42,500 in 2006. "As long as the county doesn't then say we have to pay," he said. Newcom is still paying a debt for equipment bought several years ago and those 17 municipalities will continue to pay their shares.

"I have a wait-and-see attitude. The county promised us the same level of service that was seen in the past and we expect service to continue at that level," Koehler said. Holding suit with most of the regional consolidations, all 19 floor operators and even one administrator from Newcom are expected to assume jobs with the county this week. However, two top-tier Newcom administrators, Brian Melby and Gary Thomas, did not make the transition. They took positions out of state. Brian Melby, who was the only Newcom director in nine years, was left without a comparable position with the county and consequently accepted an offer to become the emergency dispatch manager of the City of Aurora, Colo. "It is purely that they have the numbers filled at the top and don't have any positions that would really fit," Melby said, adding he will be sad to leave.

In the past, when a resident of the communities that Newcom served called 911 for assistance from either police, firefighters, an ambulance, paramedics or even public works during situations like floods, it was routed to Newcom in Shaler. Professional Newcom dispatchers then would notify the respective community department. Those first on the scene would relay back to the dispatchers possibly requesting back-up from neighboring departments. Under the consolidated system, calls from inside Allegheny County -- excluding those from constituents of the two regional centers that have not made the move yet -- will be routed to the North Point Breeze headquarters and should be answered by a dispatcher that transferred from the regional facility from which the call formerly would have been answered.

Consequently, police officers, firefighters and others should be speaking to the same voices as before consolidation. "It won't be readily apparent to users that a change has even been made, that is how sophisticated this technology is," Bastianini said. Newcom necessitated a partnership between many communities and there were several committees and organizations that had input into operations, Bastianini says. The county pledges those same organizations will not lose a voice. "I don't think you are going to see a deterioration," Melby says. "I think you are going to see the same level of service now and hopefully in a year of two, an improvement of services."