Plans are under way to consolidate emergency communications across a broad stretch of Summit County and part of Portage County.

Summit County and the cities of Cuyahoga Falls, Stow and Tallmadge are studying the idea of setting up a consolidated dispatch center and are preparing to hire a consultant to outline a way forward. 

"The parties have continued to meet and we expect to announce the next step in the process soon," said Jason Dodson, chief of staff for Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro.

Cuyahoga Falls, Stow and the county have their own dispatch centers. Stow is under contract to dispatch for Tallmadge, Mogadore and Randolph Township in Portage County, while Cuyahoga Falls dispatches for Silver Lake and Munroe Falls.

In addition to handling security at the Akron-Canton Regional Airport, the Summit County Sheriff’s Office also serves the city of Green, Northfield Center, Twinsburg and Coventry townships, and provides dispatching services to Springfield Township and Summit Metro Parks. The sheriff’s office also handles regional disaster communications and specialty law enforcement units that serve the entire county.

Thus, a consolidated dispatch center could eventually provide communications to at least a dozen communities in Summit and Portage counties.

The next step, according to Dodson, is for the regional contingent to hire a consultant who will advise the group on two fronts: Purchasing uniform computer-aided dispatch, or CAD, software that would be used by those communities; and the elements of a consolidated operation, including governance structure, staffing and location.

Cuyahoga Falls Mayor Don Walters said officials involved with plans for the consolidated site recently met to discuss the consultant issue.

Summit County will hire and pay the consultant and the other communities will reimburse the county for their share in the costs. Each community would have to approve legislation to commit to paying its share for the consultant’s work. 

"The county will be finalizing the percentages of cost for the consultant for each participating community in each respective project," Walters said.

Working with the consultant will help the group determine the features it wants in a CAD software system and which firm would be best to provide the software, according to Stow Mayor Sara Kline. She said the group received a $500,000 grant from the state of Ohio to provide funding for that piece of the plan, and must spend the money by March 31, 2018.

Kline said the city of Akron is part of the contingent that will purchase the CAD software, but is not part of the group seeking to create a consolidated dispatch center.

Kline said that the Summit County Health Building on Graham Road in Stow and a site in Akron she declined to specify are under consideration for the regional center. The consultant also will be asked to help the group identify a third possible location.

She said that Stow’s dispatch site on Darrow Road is not being considered for the regional facility.

Don Cooper, Tallmadge’s director of administration, said his city does not have its own dispatch center, but "what we’re hoping for is that they’ll find the most economical way forward and we want to participate in the development of that capability."

Why the regional effort is happening

A state mandate is one of the reasons for the joint effort. A law took effect in 2016 requiring Summit County to designate five public service answering points, or PSAPs, to handle wireless 911 calls and receive state funding. Dispatch centers in Akron; the Summit County Sheriff’s Office, also headquartered in Akron; Cuyahoga Falls; Stow; and the Southwest Summit Communications Center in Green were chosen. Other communities could operate dispatch centers, but would not be eligible for PSAP funding.

When Ohioans pay their cell phone bills, 25 cents per month goes to a state surcharge to help fund wireless PSAPs. That revenue is then distributed to counties, which decide how the funds will be distributed to communities that operate them.

Dodson said the number of PSAPs receiving state funding must be reduced from five to four by the beginning of next year.

On another issue, Kline noted that both state and federal governments are putting more mandates on dispatch centers that are "costly and demanding." She said it is a "real challenge" for communities to handle these requirements on their own. As a result, communities are working together to meet these mandates "more efficiently," said Kline.