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Ptl. Erica Hoffman

ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS – Whether it will destroy the feeling and efficiency  of a small town police department or improve services for borough residents will be the topic of a special meeting of the Mayor and Council Tuesday evening at 7 p.m. as the governing body hears residents on the question of moving the local emergency dispatch services to the Monmouth County Sheriff’s Office Center. Interested persons can visit the Atlantic Highlands site at ahnj.com for information on how to attend the meeting and be heard on ZOOM.

Discussion is strong on both sides of the issue, with Police Chief David Rossbach  strongly in favor of handing dispatch services over to the County Sheriff’s department for the efficiency and security of borough residents, a move he readily admits will be expensive in the first year but will also result in huge financial savings in the future while providing a safer environment for residents.

Opponents of the move argue dispatchers in Freehold, where the Sheriff’s Office is located, do not have sufficient knowledge of streets, areas and people within the community to maintain the level of safety they feel currently exists, and will also leave police headquarters vacant during the night hours.

“The safety and security of our community is my number one priority and I believe that moving our local dispatch services to the Monmouth County Sheriff’s Office will allow our police department to provide a higher degree of service on many levels,” Rossbach has said many times, including on the department’s Facebook page.

If adopted after Tuesday’s hearing, the move would mean eliminating the four police dispatch positions currently held by four long time employees, the chief said, none of whom lives in the borough. He said the four dispatchers are not governed by any police unions or organizations but are civilian positions with the sole purpose of responding to emergency calls and dispatching emergency personnel and equipment where needed.

The chief said the county 9-1-1 calls have been handled for borough residents for many years by the county’s communication system, and would continue to do so under this proposal, along with answering non-emergency calls and dispatching police, fire and EMS, all at a substantial cost savings.  The local, non-emergency phone number, 732-291-1212 would remain in service and “anybody not familiar with the change would not notice any difference in services.”

Headquarters would remain open 24 hours a day, he said, and in the event  an officer or the records clerk was not available, a citizen would pick up a phone and speak directly with a telecommunicator who would assist in the same manner as local dispatchers do now. Rossbach indicated there would probably be two telephones, one outside the building for easy access. He added that because of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has not been any access to the police department office afterhours and there have been no problems.

Rossbach said the advantages of joining the county facility include  the benefit of a state of the art upgraded radio system  providing more reliable communications, clearer radio transmissions, private channels for safer communications, statewide coverage, and interoperability with surrounding towns. Police, fire and EMS unites would use the  Spillman Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) and Records system which provides information sharing with most other County communities, the  Sheriff’s Office, and in the future,  the New Jersey State Police.  This means officers and first responders would have access to critical data and background information on persons, locations, vehicles and other data in seconds.

Opponents of the change argue that the four local dispatchers have greater knowledge of local areas, know immediately where specific addresses are and can handle dispatch services more efficiently because of this knowledge. Further, the dispatchers are available to assist police in other areas, whether it is for crowd or traffic  control at large events, such as the annual Firemen’s Fair at the Yacht Harbor, and provide a needed service. Additionally, they know many residents and addresses with special needs or concerns and can assess situations more rapidly armed with this knowledge. “They do more than dispatch,” said one resident who asked not to be identified.

Currently, the Sheriff’s Office, which comes under Monmouth County Sheriff Shawn Golden, operates two 9-1-1 centers in Freehold and a backup/disaster recovery center in Neptune. It  employs more than 110 full time staff members and answers 9-1-1 calls for 49 municipalities and one military facility, including Middletown, Sea Bright and Highlands.  The center features 52 dispatch consoles, dispatches 23 police departments, 69 fire departments, and 38 first aid Squads, together with back up for six agencies.  In 2019, it processed 775,648 calls including 179,700  9-1-1 calls. All staff is trained as Emergency Medical Dispatchers, emergency communication officers, CPR  and NCIC terminal operators.

“If the main issue is cops working the desk, I would staff more per diem dispatchers, not go to county dispatch,” one person wrote on Facebook. “There is a definite pro for someone who knows your town and its residents personally and don’t see it as just a map of a place they might never have been and someone they will never talk to again on the phone. Think about it. Talk to the residents of Spring Lake. They regretted it immediately.”

Spring Lake Borough had adopted the County system, then changed their mind and went back to local dispatchers. The Spring Lake Police Chief did not respond to questions why the governing body changed its position.

“I’ve lived in this borough all my life,” said former Mayor Helen Marchetti, “and I think it is essential to keep our local dispatchers. This is a small time; it is a town where we feel comfortable knowing that people we know are providing the services we need.  There are too many streets in Highlands and Atlantic Highlands wit h similar names, and someone in Freehold might not know the difference. ” Further, the former mayor said, “will dispatchers in Freehold know it’s really a Middletown resident needing help, not an Atlantic Highlands residents?” referring to the large number of Navesink residents with an Atlantic Highlands mailing address.

Rossbach stressed that while the financial issues are not his primary concern, “the safety of our residents ia. There are great financial benefits to going with the county system after the first year of operation.”  Cost increases will be capped at two percent a year, he said, and would represent huge savings in purchasing new and more up-to-date equipment should the borough continue to provide service on its own. Concerning the question about Middletown residents, Rossbach conceded residents will have to know the correct towns in which they live.

He said the local dispatchers will be offered communicator jobs with the Sheriff’s Office and could apply if interested and could eventually become civil service employees at the higher salaries and greater chances for advancement county positions offer. The chief added he and other officers have toured the county communications facility and are impressed by the technology and sophistication of the equipment and training of the employees.

 

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