News

Palo Alto to share dispatch system with Mountain View, Los Altos

Three cities seek to reduce costs, improve service through 'virtual consolidation' of public-safety technology

While other Peninsula cities are preparing to merge or outsource their public-safety departments, Palo Alto, Mountain View and Los Altos are pursuing a less drastic idea -- a "virtual consolidation" of their emergency operations.

The three cities have been working for the past three years on upgrades that would allow each department to effortlessly communicate with the others and provide backup service as needed. Currently, the cities' respective dispatch systems can't communicate with one another.

The project would also boost the cities' ability to respond to incidents along their respective borders and provide redundancies for each dispatch system -- a useful measure in the event one of the dispatch systems becomes inoperable, said Charles Cullen, director of technical services at the Palo Alto Police Department.

Cullen, who updated the City Council on the effort Monday night, called virtual consolidation "an important and groundbreaking project" that will allow the cities to leverage the benefits of consolidation without the "upfront cost of a brick-and-mortar facility." By pooling their resources, Cullen said, the three cities were able to bid together on a common dispatch system that they would not be able to afford on their own. Last year, they selected the company Intergraph Corporation to design and install the new system, Cullen said.

The upgrade will cost the three cities a little more than $3 million, with Palo Alto and Mountain View each contributing roughly $1.3 million and Los Altos (which has a smaller population and no fire department) chipping in $740,000. The mutual-aid channel would be partially funded by a grant from the State Homeland Security Grant Program.

For Palo Alto, the consolidation project is part of a greater push to save money by working with neighbors around the region. City Manager James Keene has been working with his counterparts in neighboring cities for more than a year to see which types of services they can share to save money and improve efficiency. As he unveiled his proposed budget for fiscal year 2012 on Monday night, he cited the "virtual consolidation" project as a harbinger of the future.

"We'll be doing much, much more of that, as I see it," Keene said. "We plan to expand our use of information technology to make us more efficient as an organization."

But while saving money is a major incentive, city officials also believe the project would improve response times for emergency-service calls, Cullen said. The three cities aim to adopt a common 9-1-1 system that would allow them to respond to text messages, email and videos -- a system branded "Next Generation 9-1-1." It would also allow each city to monitor calls just across its border and respond accordingly.

"There may be resources that are closer to south Palo Alto in Mountain View and Los Altos than our units up north and we think we can reduce response times and serve the public better," Cullen said.

Cullen said the cities hope to sign a contract for the joint public-safety systems in the next month and to begin installing and testing the new system later this year. The joint systems are scheduled to go live in spring 2012, he said.

The project is nearing completion at a time when other cities in the region are planning more dramatic measures for reducing public-safety costs. San Bruno and Millbrae agreed last month to merge their fire departments. San Carlos, which had previously shared a fire department with Belmont, had flirted with outsourcing its fire department before deciding last week to merge it with Redwood City's.

Palo Alto officials praised the virtual consolidation effort Monday night, calling it a smart way to reduce money and improve service. Councilman Greg Schmid said it was an "exciting project." Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd called it "great," and Mayor Sid Espinosa, a leading proponent of regionalizing services, dubbed it a "no-brainer."

"It will provide economies of scale," Espinosa said. "This was an area where there was a clear opportunity. There was a win-win for all the different communities."

Related stories:

Neighboring cities eye regional services

Cities may share dispatchers -- 'no fire merger'

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sounds Good
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 3, 2011 at 10:17 am

Sounds good, on the surface.

> For Palo Alto, the consolidation project is part of a greater
> push to save money by working with neighbors around the region

There is a cost of $1.3M cited in the article, but no mention of "savings". So, "where's the beef?" Unless this leads to reducing the staff size on each of the 911 centers of these three towns, it's not really a cost savings effort.

> The three cities aim to adopt a common 9-1-1 system that would
> allow them to respond to text messages, email and videos -- a
> system branded "Next Generation 9-1-1.

This is good, although it certainly opens up a lot of questions about public access to the data that is uploaded during 911 calls, or through other avenues that might be introduced in the future.

It would be a lot better if the Police/City Manager had actually documented this in some written form, like a Staff Report. Hopefully they will at some point.

And hopefully they will identify the "cost savings" that they envision, and how these costs will be saved.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sounds Good
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 3, 2011 at 10:24 am

BTW--there has been a lot of work done over the past decade on some sort of upgrading of the 911 system. The last big effort was to push for Cell Phone support, which came several years ago, often referred to as E911. But this was just a patch on an already aging system.

The following Wiki-page outlines some of the efforts that have been made to define a "Next Generation 911" system:

Web Link

Palo Alto does not seem to have published any documents that acknowledge this work, or how it might proceed to adopt/support this effort.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Penny
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 3, 2011 at 12:03 pm

This sounds like a good solution. I'm glad to know that it is being explored.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Cindy
a resident of Woodside
on May 3, 2011 at 10:39 pm

Updated: Wednesday, June 30, 2010, 10:19 AM
Web Link

The linked article from June 2010 does not boast of "the past three years of hard work."

Agreed. Where is the cost savings besides eventually laying someone off. $3 mil scraping the IT budget. Use it or lose it.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 4, 2011 at 7:18 am

Good. Makes financial sense to get rid of all these individual administration centers. Let the County run all the library and emergency services.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sounds Good
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 4, 2011 at 7:53 am

> Good. Makes financial sense to get rid of all these individual
> administration centers.

Yes, it does. Unfortunately, that's not what is happening, at least at the moment. Downsizing is an obvious next step, if there is the political will to take that step. Unfortunately, government has become more of a "job engine" than a service delivery mechanism, so it's difficult to see meaningful downsizing coming quickly.

> Let the County run all the library and emergency services.

This is an obvious possibility, but are there other, better, possibilities? Libraries are on a slow path to extinction. What's needed is a general sense that "their time is up", and a downsizing effort. It's difficult to believe that a county-wide library service, with thousands on the payroll, will be interested in evolving themselves out of jobs.

The County is currently the largest employer in Santa Clara County. With only five elected Supervisors, it's almost out-of-control, and certainly beyond any sense of "service to the public". Other ideas should be explored, before turn to a "County-wide solution".

Perhaps trying out consolidation on a three-four city "region" might be a better way to go. Currently, San Jose has the largest population, and so has the largest political clout in County-wide entities, like VTA (which is pretty much a financial failure). So, the smaller cities might well take note, and try to consolidate with the communities within a twenty-minute drive, rather than the "Colossus" of Santa Clara County.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Government Consolidation
a resident of another community
on May 5, 2011 at 9:25 am

Having small towns/cities with duplication of organization in such a small geographical area is not longer benefitial to everyone. Why have a city council, city manager, department heads, etc that are nearly a carbon copy of the small town next door. We all do the same thing, have near identical citizenry with the same needs. It is about time that city and towns merge together and get rid of these top heavy management duplications. Palo Alto, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Mountain View along with Sunnyvale and Cupertino should start mergining into one city/town. We no longer have farm lands or rural areas seperating each other. What defines us is a dotted line on a map. Merge, select a new name, eliminate the duplicate management layers and continue.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 5, 2011 at 11:21 am

I wish there was a like button on these threads similar to Facebook.

Consolidate Government, I agree with you entirely.

The small towns (called cities) up and down the Peninsula are a waste of time and money. All are putting up taxes to pay for services and administration of these services, while at the same time there is not enough money for some of the things it would be nice to have too.

If we could all have the same admin, we would be able to open our libraries longer, share space and facilities for utilities and amenities, have less city red tape workers and ultimately save money. Whose money would be saved? Well, ours of course.


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