Client Success Story: Assessment Helps Colorado County Address Emergency Communications Center’s Challenges
MCP subject-matter experts assessed and then helped to enhance a Colorado county’s public-safety facility, operations, and governance.Background:
Pitkin County, Colorado, is in the west-central part of the state, about 11 miles west of the Continental Divide. The county has a population of 17,358 per the 2020 Census and an area of 975 square miles. The county seat and largest city is Aspen, a popular ski resort destination that is popular year-round due to a plethora of outdoor activities. However, the location also is exacerbating the acute staffing shortage that is afflicting emergency communications centers (ECCs) nationwide.
Staffing Challenges Abound
The Pitkin County Regional Emergency Dispatch Center (Pitkin) serves the following entities:
- Aspen Police Department
- Aspen Fire Protection District
- Aspen Ambulance District
- Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office
- Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District
- Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority
- Town of Basalt
- Town of Snowmass Village
Pitkin hired Mission Critical Partners (MCP) to conduct a holistic assessment of its emergency-response environment. While Pitkin officials were most concerned about staffing, they also had other concerns. These included its facility — which had significant space limitations and a lease that was soon to expire — its governance structure, and its funding structure, particularly the cost-sharing model that was in place.
The facility is in Aspen, directly across U.S. 82 from the airport. Finding enough personnel to staff the facility is a significant challenge due to the area’s extremely high cost of living — none of the existing personnel can afford to live there. Consequently, some staff members drive 1-2 hours each way to the facility.
This is problematic on multiple levels. One is that such a long commute tends to wear out personnel and thus makes it more difficult to retain them. Another is that the area is prone to weather extremes, especially in the winter. For example, the Aspen area receives about 179 inches of snow annually due to its elevation and location in the Rocky Mountains. When it snows, roads often become unpassable, making an already long commute for most personnel even longer — if they can get to the facility at all. The result is that the Pitkin’s turnover rate is 38 percent, considerably higher than the rate of 29 percent nationwide identified by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO).
Other Impactful Challenges
In addition, the facility is cramped. Pitkin utilizes a portion of a fire station leased from the Aspen Fire Department. The space is at capacity — individual workspace is severely limited and there is no room for additional telecommunicators or information technology (IT) and operational support staff. Pitkin’s director works out of a small office that is inadequate, while the operations manager works at an open desk on the 911 floor. Adding to the challenge is that the fire department wants to convert the facility back to use as an element of the fire station.
Finally, while the Pitkin has a backup facility equipped with two workstations — one is fully functional with call-handling, computer-aided dispatch, and land-mobile-radio capabilities, but the other can handle emergency calls only — it is located just one-half mile from the primary ECC. This means that any circumstances that would cause an evacuation of the primary center also would impact the backup center similarly.
Regarding governance, Pitkin administration primarily is the responsibility of the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, though a board consisting of representatives from stakeholder agencies acts in an advisory role. An intergovernmental agreement (IGA) exists between Pitkin and its member agencies. It was established in 2013 and renews automatically every five years; however, it is not regularly reviewed or updated. The governance structure whereby the Pitkin is a unit within the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office would not be conducive to establishing a consolidated center at some future date.
MCP also determined there are potential organic regionalization opportunities with other consolidated ECCs, including some that serve resort communities and are experiencing the same challenges as Pitkin. Regionalization would offer economies of scale that would enable the consolidated agencies to leverage technology, particularly as it relates to Next Generation 911 (NG911) service. Not only would regional consolidation potentially resolve these issues for all concerned, but it also would create cost efficiencies and enhance cost sharing for member agencies. This in turn would help them upgrade their communications technology more quickly, amongst other benefits.
What MCP Did
The project began in June 2021 with strategic-visioning and focus group sessions. Then MCP subject-matter experts conducted a thorough assessment of Pitkin’s facility, operations, governance, and funding structure. The assessment took three months and was based on industry standards and best practices, as well as the SMEs’ collective experience and expertise. A 95-page, findings-and-recommendations report was delivered in December 2021.
Chief among the dozens of recommendations was relocating the primary ECC to another location to make it more accessible to current and prospective personnel. Doing so would improve day-to-day operations while also having a positive effect on recruiting and hiring.
Corollary to this recommendation was one that suggested establishment of a new backup center in Basalt, which is in the northwest corner of Pitkin County, about 21 miles from Aspen. The town’s fire department has a station that could be converted for this purpose, as well as an adjacent apartment building that could be used to house personnel and to establish a training facility. There would be numerous advantages to doing this. One would be that a backup facility with sufficient distance from the primary center would be created, which would be an improvement over the current situation if a bugout event were to occur. Another would be that the Basalt facility could be used by personnel living in the area to work remotely if circumstances were such that they were unable to reach the primary facility, for example, when a major snowstorm hits the area. Finally, establishing a backup ECC/training center in Basalt could help to spur recruiting efforts in the area.
As often happens in the aftermath of recommendations reports, Pitkin spun these 90 degrees and moved in a somewhat different direction. Specifically, the agency has decided to establish three geographically spread satellite ECCs that will supplement the primary ECC and serve as backups to the primary ECC and each other. This will provide numerous benefits, not the least of which is dramatically improved resiliency and redundancy.
“The report did exactly what it was intended to do, which was to provide a roadmap that Pitkin could leverage to bring its strategic vision to fruition,” said Stacy Banker, an MCP project manager who led the assessment project.
A significant portion of the study centered on the workforce, i.e., staffing, recruiting, hiring, and retention. Using industry standards and best practices, MCP provided Pitkin with a recommendation for optimal staffing, including key administrative and support positions. Leadership continues to work on stabilizing staffing and has added an operations manager to the organizational structure.
MCP also recommended that Pitkin and its members leverage CAD-to-CAD technology throughout the region, and that Pitkin initiate discussions with potential regional partners. Such technology would provide a valuable backup capability for all interconnected agencies, but more importantly would enable seamless data sharing.
What the Client Says
“MCP gave us a lot of great ideas for our five-year strategic plan that will make us more efficient moving forward. We wanted to make sure that our board knew that we were doing everything we could to provide the best service possible.”
- Brett Loeb, communications director, Pitkin County Regional Emergency Dispatch Center