Austintown police expansion touted for efficiency, better service
AUSTINTOWN — With a $503,000 expansion to the Austintown Township Police Department nearing completion, dispatchers in the building are eager to move to new space that will not only provide more elbow room, but also help improve efficiency in responding to emergencies in multiple communities.
“We outgrew the old room and needed space,” said township police Chief Robert Gavalier.
Stephen Sinn, township dispatch supervisor, said beginning in 2016 the Austintown dispatch center began dispatching for other communities in a consolidation process sparked by the disbanding of a central Mahoning County dispatching center. Half of the dispatchers from that center were sent to Boardman, with the other half coming to Austintown.
In 2016, Austintown started dispatching for North Jackson Police Department, then in 2017 took on the Lake Milton Police Department, Craig Beach Police Department, the Mahoning County Dog Warden’s office, Mahoning County Prosecutor’s office and the Mahoning County Sheriff’s office. In 2019, the Lake Milton and Ellsworth Township fire departments also switched to dispatching out of Austintown.
Calls coming into the Austintown communications center have nearly doubled since 2015, with 36,000 calls coming in that year, and more than 70,000 in 2019.
“With these additions came a large increase of calls, doubled the number of employees on staff and raised the volumes of radios and phones in this small and confined space,” said Sinn.
The current dispatch center is about 1,000 square feet and holds four dispatch consoles, part of the computer server, and Sinn’s cramped office. Dispatchers keep the lights turned off to cut down on glare, and contend with competing noise as console speakers face inward and phones and radios sit nearby.
The new space is a semi-open plan of 1,600 square feet, with partial walls separating a dispatch area for Austintown Township and western communities. Sinn said the LED lights in the rooms will be dimmable, and noise cancellation panels will be added to the walls in addition to the noise absorbing ceiling tiles already in place. Like the current dispatch center, the new space includes a window to the lobby that will allow Austintown dispatchers to have “face to face” contact with people coming into the police station 24 / 7.
The new space also has a common space that will include a conference table and a kitchenette for employees to use on shifts that can reach 16 hours. Security cameras will be in place in every room, and dispatchers will be able to monitor weather with live radar, and emergency response crews with a program called Active 911.
Sinn said another significant benefit to the new space is having a weather- and fire-proof room dedicated to the department’s vital computer servers, which under the current set up are strewn about the building.
Dispatchers are tentatively set to move into the space in mid-February.
Starting in April, dispatchers across Mahoning County are set to move to a countywide CAD — or computer aided dispatch — program, which will allow departments to share information, said Sinn.
“Right now the only thing we can access is people we have a history with,” said Sinn. He said dispatch and the police department don’t know if someone has prior arrests in other communities, but with the new system, they will.
Austintown dispatch currently has 16 full-time employees and four dispatching consoles — but three more consoles will be added with the new space. Sinn said two of the consoles will be “backup consoles” for future growth, but will also be available for temporary use for other dispatchers using county-wide CAD.
“Should [their consoles] go down, they can use our space,” said Sinn.
As far as growth is concerned, Sinn said the Austintown communications center is set up to allow the possibility for “meaningful consolidation.” He said taking on fire departments such as Lake Milton and Ellsworth has “eliminated critical delays” in response time.
“Prior to being dispatched through Austintown, 911 calls would be received at this location from residents in these areas and then once determined they were fire or medical in nature, they were transfered out to whoever handled the dispatch duties for those resources,” said Sinn. He said dispatching from one location saves several minutes of delay — which can be crucial in an emergency.
Harold Maynard, Milton Township Volunteer Fire Department chief, said the department was dispatched by a private ambulance company from 2000 until the company shut down several years later. At that time, the fire department switched to being dispatched by Trumbull County 911, but emergency calls often went to Austintown first and had to be redirected, costing valuable minutes.
“If someone is having a heart attack or something like that, two or three minutes is a long time,” said Maynard. He said switching to Austintown is “saving some significant time.”
Maynard said dispatching out of one place also puts the department on a common frequency with nearby fire departments and keeps Lake Milton police — who currently are a on a different radio frequency — just a dispatcher away.
“[Dispatch] can patch us together if they need to,” said Maynard.
Maynard said he believes other departments will look at centralizing dispatching: “I think other departments in the near future will be doing the same thing.”
The one downside, said Maynard, is an increase in cost — with dispatching out of Austintown being “significantly more expensive” than using Trumbull County 911. But he said the cost is worth it.
Police departments dispatching out of Austintown are not charged, because the communications center receives financial support from Mahoning County following the consolidation of its dispatching department.
Gavalier said though consolidation is often thought to be more cost effective, oftentimes it is not — but it is more efficient, allowing a better, faster service to be provided to the community.