Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Calhoun County series.
The decision on whether to improve the emergency communications system for first responders throughout Calhoun County will be made by county residents when they go to the polls Aug. 2.
The question is being put forth by Calhoun County’s Consolidated Dispatch Authority,
which is seeking a its first-ever millage request of 0.98 mills to be levied for 10 years. The funds raised will go toward major capital improvements to the county’s 911 system, says Michael Armitage, Executive Director of the county’s dispatch authority.
He says the major improvement would be “upgrades to add additional radio towers throughout the county and provide radios to police, fire, and EMS (Emergency Medical Service) in the county’s municipalities.”
If approved, the estimated annual cost to the owner of a home with a taxable value of $100,000 would be $98 per year.
Armitage says his department made the decision to seek the millage request after surcharge requests in 2012 and 2020 were not approved by voters.
“When the county’s 911 system was consolidated back in 2009, it was intended that we would have a dedicated funding source and since previous surcharges did not pass, we’ve been billing municipalities quarterly,” he says.
Municipalities pay a combined total of $2.5 million, part of the dispatch authority’s budget.
A screen in the Cahoun County Central Dispatch center in Marshall displays the number of active callers and other relevant information.
“With that funding model just because of the way it’s set up we have not had the revenue to make investments in some major capital improvement projects. This millage request would reduce the contributions made by municipalities by about 71 percent, but also provide funding for capital improvement projects,” Armitage says.
If the millage request is approved, Armitage says municipalities will get a reduction in annual contributions made to the 911 system and would not have to purchase their own radios or cover the cost of new radio towers which will provide better coverage countywide.
He says portable radios cost between $5,000 and $6,000 each.
“Not having to fund radio purchases is a huge advantage. A lot of municipalities wouldn’t be able to afford radios,” he says. “The reduction in their annual contributions is significant, but for them to have access to radios is a bigger advantage. I can’t advocate one or another, but how these upgrades would be funded is critical and under the current funding model would not be feasible.”
Helen Ure listens to a call at the Cahoun County Central Dispatch center in Marshall.
Although Armitage was limited by what he could say because of his role as head of the dispatch authority, Erin Allwardt, this dispatch authority’s Quality Assurance and Training Supervisor, was able to offer some insights into the important role the department plays in the lives of residents.
Allwardt, who began her career there in 2008, says last year the team of 26 answered more than 100,000 calls for service.
“People don’t call 911 on their best days,” Allwardt says. “They call us when there’s an emergency. We need the equipment to make sure first responders can hear us. Anytime you’re dealing with the lives of residents and their well-being it’s so important to have the basic tools necessary to help them and aid them when they need it the most.”
The county’s dispatch center is a 24/7 operation. Although the calls received run the gamut from medical emergencies to domestic disputes to just about anything else one could imagine including those that deal with mental health issues. Allwardt says the center works closely with Summit Pointe
and was the first in the state of Michigan to be CIT (Crisis Intervention Team)
trained and certified.
A variety of antennas for the central dispatch center sit atop the Calhoun Country government building in Marshall.
“The Battle Creek Police Department and every police department has crisis intervention trained officers and that has been a pivotal role. It has changed the way we respond and de-escalate a situation,” Allwardt says. “We really have worked hard with Summit Pointe and our mental health resources have developed so much.”
The training program to become a dispatcher includes six to nine months of on-the-job training, state certifications that have to be obtained, and 24 hours of continuing education every two years.
“You’re not walking in on day one and delivering a baby over the phone,” Allwardt says. “Historically nobody grows up and throughout their childhood says, ‘I want to be a 911 dispatcher.’ It’s a profession you fall into. Unfortunately, that plays into 911 centers being understaffed and that has been a chronic problem. I think it’s gotten worse since COVID. In addition to being a profession that’s not talked or thought about, it’s become more challenging to recruit staff. It is a tough market for sure.”
This is exacerbated by the birthdays, weekends, and holidays that dispatch team members are required to work as part of the job and is what makes the center run like a “well-oiled machine,” Allwardt says.
“Everybody has their part to play. It’s just like a symphony. As a dispatcher and call taker the bigger role as I tell our employees is that they need to educate and reassure callers that we’re not the ones coming and there’s help on the way. There’s never too much reassurance.”
Often, she says, callers “truly believe that help isn’t on the way until we disconnect with them” because what they do is not easily seen and callers aren’t privy to the ongoing communications with first responders.
For this reason, Armitage calls the millage request, “harder” to make than others that are more visible.
“A lot of our work in 911 is behind the scenes. It’s a whole piece of an ecosystem,” he says. “When you call 911, we answer quickly and get people to the right place at the right time. There’s a lot of radio communication that happens behind the scenes. The public expectation is our quality of service so that when they need it, it’s going to be there.”