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County Council, March 7

New system to cut response time over Consolidated Dispatch
More on I-526
Warwick Jones

It wasn’t the most fractious Finance Committee meeting we have witnessed. But some of the exchanges amongst Council members last night had nasty tones and arguably were unwarranted.

There were few items on last night’s agenda and the most important related to Station Alerting, the system by which Fire, EMS, and Emergency Services are alerted using the new Consolidated Dispatch System (CDS). On the face of it, the decision was simple. The services need a state of the art system embodying sophisticated software. That chosen by staff would cut response time from the present 25 to 40 seconds, to 10 to 15 seconds. The saving may seem small but it means much in serious emergencies. There were other benefits relating to efficiencies and effectiveness of the CDS. One of the benefits was the conversion of text to speech. Text messages would still be sent but would be accompanied by a “computer” voice message. This would eliminate the sometime difficulties in understanding the speech of dispatchers. The fire chiefs of the cities endorsed Station Alerting as did the many fire fighters present at the meeting last night. The “preliminary” cost estimate was an upfront $3.42 million but staff hoped to negotiate with the vendor to bring the cost lower. Annual running costs were estimated at $300,000.

Council member Condon was the first to speak on the issue. She noted that some time had elapsed since the first Request for Proposals (RFP) had been issued and some changes in circumstances. Why not seek more RFPs? Also, why not ask the municipalities to pick up the bills for their share of the costs? The comments were made with considerable stridency which prompted a comment from Council member Summey. We did not hear the comment but from the ire aroused in Council member Condon and her response, she obviously felt insulted.

There was considerable discussion of the issue. Staff noted that the original study some years ago relating to Consolidated Dispatch ignored the Station Alerting system (presumably it was believed the then present system was adequate). The omission was realized in 2009 and studies began to include it. Staff and some Council members thought that it was necessary for the County to bear the extra cost burden. After all, the County had offered to pay the cost of CD in the first place. If the municipalities were billed for the extra service, some may refuse to accept and pay for it. The efficiency and effectiveness of the Station Alerting system would be reduced if municipalities opted out. Council member Schweers expressed concern about the experience of the vendor, Purvis Systems. He noted that the price was 50% more than the $2.27 million budgeted. He suggested that the issue be deferred for a few months for consideration in the 2014 budget discussion.

Representatives of Purvis were allowed to speak at the meeting and noted that the company had a long experience with Fire Departments in New York and more recently in DC. Station Alerting systems had been set up in these cities. No County in South Carolina has a Station Alerting system comparable to that proposed for Charleston

Council members Schweers, Qualey and Sachs aligned themselves with Council member Condon and opposed awarding the contract. They were not opposed to a Station Alerting system but for varying reasons, were not prepared to immediately award a contract. However, the other 5 members of Council were, and staff was authorized to begin negotiations with Purvis and work up a contract.

The next item on the Agenda was simply described as Environmental Management. As it probably related to the involvement of County Attorney in the management of Environmental Services, it was likely to generate lively discussion. But it was never discussed! Council member Schweers rightly objected to the absence of any written material accompanying the item and called for a deferral. But he went further, he asked why there was no written material and referred to amendments made in the Administration Policy/Rules Committee. Council member Rawl, Chair of the Committee said that the changes made had no relation to the issue. The changes made by his Committee related to those who wished to speak before Council, and were not members of Council. Council member Schweers confessed confusion but claimed that he had been misled by Council member Summey who he said, indicated otherwise. We are not sure of Council member Summey’s response – it was not a denial but it was not a full endorsement of Council member Schweer’s allegation.

Council member Schweers got his deferral and hopefully, for the sake of the public and Council members, written material and sufficient notice will be provided in future on items on the Finance Committee meeting agendas. And Council member Rawl was right; no rule was changed by his Committee that related to the issue of written material and Council Agendas.

And at the conclusion of the meeting, Council member Johnson came down heavily on the Post and Courier for misrepresenting her in an article of I-526. She claimed that the newspaper said “she was swayed in her vote” on I-526. She also ascribed the quote to a statement by Council member Schweers. She said that she makes her own decisions and doesn’t need to be persuaded. She was not swayed by anyone, she said.

In the terms of media transgressions, this was not major. After all, Council member Johnson did switch her vote to approval of the project, and was effectively instrumental in providing the go ahead for the I- 526 completion. We did not see the P&C piece – it was in a blog and not the print version we understand. If the comment were expressed as an opinion, we have no issue. But it was wrong to express it as a fact, if indeed it was expressed so.

Chairman Pryor noted at the end of the Council member’s comment that there has been no commitment by the County to pay compensation for those who own property within 1000 feet of the proposed I- 526 extension. He said that staff had been tasked to study the issue and the problems may be addressed by buffers or other means. He added that the decision to build I-526 had been made and it was time to move on – and to stop trying to corral the project.

We noted at the time the I-526 decision was made that the determination of compensation would be difficult. That view remains. But we also think that in many cases, it may not be as much as owners hope. By coincidence, I picked up a road atlas of the City of Charleston published in 1999. On it was clearly marked the route of the proposed I-526 extension. It may not have been the exact route of that now proposed, but it was not that much different. The point is that I -526 was a potential project for well over a decade. Over that time, anybody who invested in property along its way should have known of the possibility of completion. It would also be known to the seller. The market for these properties should have reflected the possibility that a road was to be constructed. How much would these property values be affected if the road were built? Some of the more vocal critics of the I-526 completion have dwellings constructed within the last 10 years or so. Knowing that the I-526 completion was a possibility, should compensation match the values of properties not along the route of I-526? We think not.

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