(Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Ryan Tunks works at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management on Thursday in Soldotna.

(Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion) Ryan Tunks works at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management on Thursday in Soldotna.

‘The first, first responders’

Dispatchers hope service isn’t lost in political dispute

“911, what’s the location of your emergency?”

That’s the question Ryan Tunks could be heard asking Thursday from his work station on the second floor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Emergency Response Center. Eyes flitting between six different computer screens while radio chatter echoed around the room, he’s a shift supervisor and one of four dispatchers on duty Thursday morning fielding emergency, administrative and accidental 911 calls made by Kenai Peninsula residents that day.

The ERC building, tucked quietly behind the Soldotna Police Department near Safeway, responds to calls from all over the Kenai Peninsula Borough, including every 911 call made from a cellphone in the borough and every landline 911 call not made in Kenai, Homer or Seward.

As dispatchers, Tunks and the rest of the people in the room are the ones who pick up the phone if you call 911 from a cellphone (and who call you back if you dial 911 accidentally), who stay on the line with you until an ambulance arrives to help treat an injury and who connect dead moose with local charities, among other things. They face long hours, a demanding workload and experience high turnover rates that mirror national trends.

“Nobody calls when they’re having a good day,” Tunks said.

The dispatchers are also the ones who stand to be impacted the most by the recent restructuring of how the borough offers dispatch services.

The Soldotna Public Safety Communications Center has been jointly run by the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the State of Alaska, but a new agreement that went into effect earlier this year phased out state employees. Under the agreement, the City of Soldotna was told its annual cost would jump from $150,000 per year to $490,000 per year, though that figure was negotiated down to $350,000 for the current year.

The borough has said that the $490,000 figure more accurately reflects what the city has been paying for services since 2013, the last time the annual payment changed. Some Soldotna City Council members have said that the city should not be responsible for subsidizing more than its share of services.

“We continue to believe that the particular fee allocation method adopted by the Borough does not provide for equity among all user agencies,” wrote Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen in an August memo to the Soldotna City Council.

That price hike now has the City of Soldotna exploring other ways to offer dispatch services, whether on its own or by partnering with someone else, such as the City of Kenai, which currently offers dispatch services independent of SPSCC for city residents. Queen said Thursday that the city is still in the “very early stages” of analyzing how feasible a partnership with the City of Kenai would be, and that discussions with Kenai administrators are ongoing.

If Soldotna broke off from the borough, however, Tunks said dispatchers’ jobs would become “much harder.” The real impact, Tunks said, would be seen in the seconds lost from emergency response time that would be spent connecting the call to its appropriate jurisdiction.

When someone calls 911 from a cellphone in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, a dispatcher at SPSCC picks up. What happens next depends on where the call is being made from. For calls placed in the borough, but not made from Kenai, Homer or Seward, emergency services are dispatched from a variety of public service agencies including the Alaska State Troopers, Central Emergency Services or the Soldotna Police Department.

For cellphone 911 calls made from Kenai, Homer or Seward, dispatchers in Soldotna have to transfer the call to its respective dispatch center. Landline 911 calls made from Kenai, Homer or Seward are automatically answered at its respective dispatch.

Tunks said that an example that highlights potential problems is a reckless driver. If someone calls 911 to report the driver while the driver is still outside of city limits, an Alaska State Trooper is dispatched. Once the driver enters city limits however, the responsibility shifts to that city’s respective agency.

Currently, every agency other than those in Kenai, Homer and Seward operate on the same channel. If Soldotna breaks off from the borough, that’s another agency that will operate on a different channel, and therefore require more time for people like Tunks to dispatch services.

He described it as being similar to the game of “telephone,” where a message is transmitted from one person to the next, and on, until the last person says what they heard — something often different from the original message.

“That (time) delay is huge,” Tunks said.

SPSCC Manager Tammy Goggia-Cockrell also said Thursday that even though the $490,000 figure has Soldotna exploring other options, she doesn’t think it would ultimately be economical for the city to start its own dispatch center because of the associated infrastructure.

Though the borough’s new economic model for the center is based on a fee-for-service, Goggia-Cockrell said that trying to nail down the number of calls that go through the SPSCC in a given day is tricky.

For one, not all calls are service calls, meaning not every call that comes in results in a dispatcher sending someone to respond to the scene. Calls also spike depending on the time of day and the time of the year, she said, noting that the daily call volume jumps in the summer when more people are on the peninsula.

Ultimately, Goggia-Cockrell said something she worries will get lost amid the political dispute between the city and the borough is the day-to-day public safety service dispatchers provide. She’s spent 27 years at SPSCC herself, sometimes jumping on a workstation when things get busy, and said she worries about the impact longer response times and potential communication breakdown will have on residents who rely on 911 services.

Tunks said he thinks of the borough’s 911 dispatchers as the “first, first responders” who do the behind-the-scenes investigative work necessary for providing borough residents with services.

“We want to be here,” Tunks said. “We want to help.”

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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