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Joint dispatch makes sense

Help is a phone call away, thanks to 911.

In most cases, the dispatcher answering the emergency call is in the same county as the caller, but not always. That's because a local dispatch center isn't mandatory in today's technological world.

The 911 dispatcher takes the call, contacts the nearest officer, fire truck or ambulance, and help arrives minutes later. The emergency responder's location, not the dispatcher's, is the key.

Goodhue and Wabasha counties began discussing shared dispatch options last year. The fact that representatives met again this week indicates that a combined center makes some sense. Two obvious reasons are technology and expense.

Goodhue County are implementing a new 800 Mhz radio system this year. The system is more reliable than the previous one, has a clearer, stronger signal and puts Goodhue County's 911 center on the format that nearby metro counties use. This will pay big dividends if a regional emergency occurs.

Wabasha County residents could benefit from this technology, too. They also would have a lower financial investment if they went with combined dispatch rather than if the county went it alone.

A potential savings of several millions probably sounds good right now because Wabasha County will open a new multimillion-dollar justice center this autumn and then levy the necessary tax dollars for many years to come. Plus, the Federal Communications Commission will require radio system upgrades in just four years.

A combined dispatch center would bring long-term savings, too, for both counties. Instead of staffing two 911 centers 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the counties could share salary expenses.

The biggest concern, of course, isn't about saving money, it's about saving lives.

We don't believe that a combined dispatch center would compromise public safety.

First, the volume of calls for the two counties wouldn't be so great that a single dispatch center would be overwhelmed.

Second, the need for independent dispatch centers is waning.

While we don't downplay the need for dispatchers to know the area when a frantic or confused individual calls on the telephone, today's computer-assisted centers can track the caller and his location better than ever regardless of the dispatcher's location. Dispatchers don't have to know every community down to every street.

There's a local example: Cannon Falls hung onto its city-based dispatch system well into the 1990s. Service hasn't suffered and taxpayers have saved money since the city turned over responsibility to Goodhue County.

Dispatchers in Goodhue and Wabasha counties already know parts of one another's territory well. Don't forget, they share responsibility for Lake City which straddles the county line.

Third, Goodhue and Wabasha counties have a history of working well together. They shared a public health service for many years, and the law enforcement agencies assist one another whenever needed.

Help will still be just a phone call away, regardless of whether Goodhue and Wabasha counties combine their dispatch centers.

While the two counties have many more discussions ahead and then contracts to negotiate if they do proceed, they're headed in the right direction because joint operations is the way of the future.