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PBA urges township officials to get public input on sharing emergency services dispatching

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: Washington Township PBA members are urging officials to proceed “in the proper way” before deciding on a bid by six Pascack Valley police chiefs to share dispatch services.

This comes at the same time that the township, Westwood and Hillsdale are considering having Bergen County Police handle dispatching.

Before township officials decide anything, NJ State Local #206 wants them to get “extensive” input from the emergency service providers in town and allow residents to ask questions.

“Any change to the manner in which emergency services are provided has the potential to significantly alter the quality of those services,” the Washington Township unit of the local says in a letter to Mayor Janet Sobkowicz and the Council, a copy of which was obtained by CLIFFVIEW PILOT .

“Residents need to be involved in the decision-making process,” it adds. “They have the right to know exactly how the service will change and exactly what the differences will be.”

As CLIFFVIEW PILOT first reported exclusively this past summer, Washington Township officials rejected an offer by county police to patrol its roads – the same as Carlstadt did recently. The dispatch question remains open in Washington Township, however.

Two competing proposals essentially are on the table – the one pitched by the county and the one backed by the chiefs in Emerson, Hillsdale, Old Tappan, River Vale, Westwood and Washington Township.

You could make it three if you include a plan that Township Council Vice-President Steve Cascio said he’s been exploring with a private firm, Ridgewood-based Northwest Bergen Central Dispatch, a public safety dispatch center in northern New Jersey established by former village firefighter Robert Greenlaw.

Under the chiefs’ plan, the dispatch center would be in Old Tappan’s former police headquarters. The six towns would split the costs equally. Although they would also have a say in operations, hirings and firings, questions have emerged over how that would be done.

The township local doesn’t approach the potential for layoffs it its letter regarding the chiefs’ bid. PBA officials say they aren’t taking sides, but, rather, want assurances that the decision makers will fully explore any and all ramifications of such a move.

“The residents expect the governing body to be responsible with the use and spending of [tax dollars]. They also expect a certain level of service to be provided in exchange for those tax dollars,” the PBA letter says. “The nature of emergency services dispatch is that if it is ‘outsourced’ and the new service is found to be unacceptable, the expense to go back to the previous system is significant and sometimes cost-prohibitive.”

One thing Local #206 says the township would lose is personal service.

“When someone calls the Washington Township Police Department, an actual person, most often a Police Officer, answers the phone. There are no pre-recorded messages or “phone trees” asking the caller to press numbers in an effort to speak to a live person,” it adds. “Residents often call simply for information, which may not be available through any other means at the time they need it. Police Officers currently provide these services and are supplemented with a part time staff of civilian dispatchers.”

The full-service Emergency Services Dispatch Center at police headquarters handles, coordinates and records all communication and response for police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians.

“It is a 911 Public Safety Answering Point and directly handles all 911 calls placed from land-based telephone lines within Washington Township,” the PBA letter says. “It is staffed and functions 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year. This also provides for Police Headquarters to be open to the residents and public 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year.

“The emergency service providers should have extensive input. The residents need to be informed about the scope and nature of any proposed changes by both the governing body and the Police Department. They need to be given the opportunity to ask questions. Will emergency service response times increase? Will Police Headquarters be closed to the public? Will there be any monetary savings? Will property taxes increase or decrease? Will there be [fewer] Police Officers in Washington Township?

“The residents deserve to have their questions answered and to have their opinions heard…. [They] certainly don’t deserve any less than that.”

The concern has taken the spotlight from the request by Bergen County Police, who have upped the number of municipalities which receive dispatch service to nine and those with 911 service from its Mahwah communications center to 20. So far, there have been no complaints, county officials say.

As part of the process, county police meet with all the emergency service departments in the town, establishing a transition team.

Westwood and Hillsdale have yet to decide whether they want to participate in the county program. If they don’t, county officials say, they can find another town to partner with Washington Township. Any arrangement requires at least two municipalities, they said.

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