Three western Minnesota counties — Stevens, Pope and Grant — are consolidating law enforcement dispatch operations.
But they're not building a new centrally located office. Instead, the three counties will all keep their dispatch centers open and try what might be called virtual consolidation.
Each of the sparsely populated counties needed to upgrade dispatch equipment, and they decided to share equipment and software.
Rather than each county having one dispatcher handling calls for that county, there will be three dispatchers who can handle calls from anywhere in the three counties, said Stevens County Sheriff Randy Willis.
"So that if the Grant County dispatcher has an accident going on the freeway, and they're busy, they just have to flip a switch and automatically all the calls will be routed to the other two counties," Willis said.
Many counties across Minnesota have studied merging dispatch centers with neighboring counties.
That would often require a new facility, something many small rural counties consider too expensive. And there sometimes is political reluctance to close the county dispatch operation.
Willis said with virtual consolidation there is no need for expensive new buildings.
The counties might save money by reducing the number of dispatchers. For example, during the night when call volume is typically low, Willis said two dispatchers might handle calls for all three counties.
The entire project is estimated to cost about $750,000. That represents estimated savings of about $500,000 by sharing equipment costs.
"With the concept done this way, there's pretty much universal support for it," said Willis. "The county commissioners look at it as a fiscally responsible thing to do. We're already seeing the cost savings in the hardware we're going to have to buy. I don't know why others wouldn't do it."
These three counties are the first to try the virtual consolidation, and other Minnesota counties are considering the idea.
Jackie Mines, director of emergency communication networks at the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, said about 30 counties are studying virtual consolidation of their dispatch centers.
"There really aren't a lot of virtual consolidations around the country, so it will provide the rest of Minnesota an opportunity to take a look at it and feel more comfortable with pursuing that," said Mines.
Stevens, Grant and Pope counties plan to have their new system working sometime this summer.