SARANAC LAKE - The village board wants Essex and Franklin counties to completely take over the dispatching of local emergency personnel.
The village Board of Trustees voted Monday to essentially shift all emergency dispatching currently provided by village fire drivers to Essex and Franklin counties, provided the counties agree and make the necessary infrastructure upgrades. If that happens, the village would no longer dispatch the Saranac Lake, Paul Smiths-Gabriels and Bloomingdale volunteer fire departments or the Saranac Lake Volunteer Rescue Squad.
Village officials say there are liabilities with their employees dispatching the outside departments. They also say county dispatchers are better trained and equipped to dispatch local emergency personnel. Franklin County is already handling 60 to 70 percent of the emergency calls in the Saranac Lake area through its Enhanced 911 center in Malone.
"It seems to be working," Trustee Barbara Rice said. "This is just that last little push to really have what I believe is in the best interest in terms of safety and health for the community."
But the potential loss of local dispatching has the fire chiefs in Saranac Lake, Bloomingdale and Paul Smiths concerned.
The board approved Monday night, with no discussion, a resolution that says the board "shall no longer provide dispatch for external department(s), once the infrastructure for each county is installed and working." Trustee Allie Pelletieri said the village wants to "put out a clear message to the counties and the fire department.
"The idea of the resolution is to encourage or push the counties to get the system up and running because we as a village are getting out of the dispatch business," Pelletieri said.
Trustees said one of the biggest advantages of E-911 is that county dispatchers can provide medical assistance over the phone to someone with a life-threatening problem.
"Our fire drivers, as great as they are, they don't have those skills," said Trustee Paul Van Cott. "That's not their training."
Why not provide village fire drivers with that level of training? Van Cott said it would be expensive and is "not something that's ever been discussed."
The county also has state-of-the-art emergency services equipment, including mapping systems that identify the location of a call, which Van Cott said the village can't afford to purchase on its own.
The move to end village dispatching for the Bloomingdale and Paul Smiths-Gabriels fire departments "was partially initiated because there is liability associated with us dispatching for other fire departments," Rice said. The village has historically dispatched those departments because the counties didn't have the infrastructure to do so, until recently. Now Franklin County can send alerts directly to Paul Smiths-Gabriels firefighters' pagers.
Trustee Tom Catillaz noted that village taxpayers have been paying for 911 infrastructure for years via a charge on their phone bills, but they haven't gotten the full benefit of the system.
"We have 911. It's here. Let's get on board with it," Catillaz said.
Saranac Lake Fire Chief Brendan Keough said he was under the impression that village fire drivers would continue to dispatch Saranac Lake fire and rescue personnel.
"If they're looking to not allow us to self-dispatch, I can tell you they're in for a big fight from the fire department," Keough said.
Keough said there have been two "serious examples" in the past week of local emergency personnel being sent to the wrong location because of county 911 dispatchers' lack of familiarity with the area. He said he couldn't provide specifics because of confidentiality issues.
"We're all for 911 and people using 911," Keough said, "but when there is a discrepancy, when there is an issue, when they can't find a location, we enhance 911. We make it better by being able to self-dispatch."
Bloomingdale Fire Chief Tim Woodruff seemed resigned that his department will no longer be dispatched by Saranac Lake.
"We're going to have to go forward with it, whether we like it or not," he said. "I think we're definitely losing a valuable asset with having Saranac Lake not dispatch."
Woodruff said department leaders will meet with emergency services officials from both counties in a few weeks.
Paul Smiths-Gabriels Fire Chief Roger Smith said he's "not happy" about the prospect of the county taking over dispatching.
"The Saranac Lake drivers know the area, they know our equipment, they know us personally, and we've worked together for many years," Smith said. "We've never had a problem."
Smith and others suggested the move may be a first step toward the village getting rid of some of its fire drivers to save money.
"It has absolutely nothing to do with that," Rice said. "We have no plans to cut any fire drivers whatsoever."
Village Manager John Sweeney and Pelletieri said Franklin County may decide it wants to preserve local dispatching in Saranac Lake in some form.
"If they request us to do it, and they assume the liability and the cost, we'll be fine with it," Pelletieri said.
Franklin County could be ready to fully take over dispatching of Saranac Lake and Paul Smiths-Gabriels emergency personnel by Jan. 1, Deputy Emergency Services Director and 911 Coordinator John Bashaw II told the Enterprise Tuesday. He said the county recently installed a new repeater on a radio tower on Mount Pisgah that will eliminate a communications problem it had with Paul Smiths-Gabriels firefighters.
Asked about the concern that Malone dispatchers are unfamiliar with the Saranac Lake area, Bashaw said, "Our dispatchers in Malone don't know the area in Hogansburg, either.
"We've been dispatching for 17 out of the 18 departments (in the county) for quite a long time, and we don't seem to have that much of an issue, although there's always a chance for human error," he said.
Essex County Emergency Services Director Don Jaquish said the earliest his county could take over dispatching for Bloomingdale would be next spring. The county is in the process of installing a new emergency radio system that will improve communications with Bloomingdale firefighters, Jaquish said.
Local emergency line
Instead of dialing 911, some Saranac Lake area residents still call a local emergency number that rings at the village firehouse, 518-891-2211, if they need medical assistance. Sweeney said the village will soon set up a recording that tells anyone who calls that number in an emergency to hang up and dial 911. The same will be done for the main number to the village police station, 518-891-4422.
Sweeney stressed that this plan is still being worked out and that the village will publicize it before it's finalized.
The change will also affect buildings in the area with security systems programmed to call 891-2211 if a fire alarm is triggered. Sweeney said those property owners will have to reprogram their systems to call the Malone 911 center.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.