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High Springs police officers question safety of local dispatch

HIGH SPRINGS – While the some City of High Springs commissioners are in favor of bringing back the city operated emergency dispatch service, the High Springs police officers who spoke during the Tuesday, May 15, town hall meeting at the Civic Center expressed concerns about safety.

Sergeant Antoine Sheppard and Officer Dustyn Shenk both said that after working under both the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ASO) Combined Communications Center (CCC) and the previous High Springs’ dispatch service, the city should remain with the CCC.

Sheppard said unless adequate funding is provided, he feels the city-operated dispatch would put the lives of the officers and High Springs residents in jeopardy. If the city funds the project properly, he would welcome a local dispatch.

Currently, when a call is received by the CCC, the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office will dispatch its own deputies to help High Springs’ smaller police department. However, with a local dispatch, ASO would not be called in unless one of the 12 High Springs’ officers requests backup. In a life-or-death situation, the time required to call for help and for it to arrive could determine whether the officer walks away unharmed.

Prior to the city switching to the CCC, High Springs relied on the caller to give his or her address. If the call was disconnected or the location unknown to the caller, the police department would have to track down the location before it could dispatch police officers. In the past, this has taken up to 45 minutes, Sheppard said. With the CCC, the address is sent automatically with the call.

If bringing back the dispatch means losing this technology and the ASO backup, Sheppard said he was not in favor of the move.

“I believe that we’re safer when we have more resources,” Shenk said.

High Springs Police Chief Steve Holley said High Springs’ residents and officers would remain safe if the dispatch was brought back into the city. The City of Alachua operates its own dispatch, outside of the CCC, and it’s a much bigger city, he said. Officer Ryan Scott said each service, whether a local dispatch or one conducted through the county, offers its own advantages and disadvantages.

The commission seemed in favor of bringing back the dispatch, although the matter hasn’t come to a vote yet. Having a local dispatch would allow the city to remain autonomous, said Commissioner Linda Gestrin.

High Springs does not have a representative on the executive board of the CCC, which consists of the Alachua County Sheriff, the Mayor of the City of Gainesville and a member of the board of County Commissioners. Gestrin feels that keeping the dispatch with the CCC is the first step toward losing the police department all together.

As it is now, the city pays 60 percent of the cost of a 911 call. But when the population increases to over 6,000, it will be responsible for the full cost. In addition, Gestrin warned the residents during Thursday’s meeting about a “perfect storm” of events colliding in 2015, which includes upgrades to the ASO new-generation radio. Proponents of returning the dispatch services to High Springs say the Next Generation Public Safety Radio Communications system will cost a substantial amount of money.

Gestrin called the cost of the large-scale ASO project predicted for 2015 and the cost associated with remaining with the CCC “nebulous” during the town hall meeting, but said the city can closely estimate the charges it would incur by bringing back dispatch.

The city estimates the city-run dispatch would cost $246,100 a year, which is $145,486 above the annual cost of remaining with the CCC. However, High Springs City Manager Jeri Langman said the police department reduced its operating expenditures from $1,044,788 to $937,318, and the reduction should be able to cover part of the required amount to bring the dispatch back.

If High Springs chooses to stay with the county and the CCC, it will be forced to rename its streets and change street signs.  The rest of Alachua County operates on a grid system, which is centered on University Avenue and Main Street in Gainesville.  With the deadline regarding the CCC approaching, the city commission intends to vote on the High Springs dispatch at the May, 22 city commission meeting.