Village asks county to take over emergency dispatch

SARANAC LAKE – The village Board of Trustees voted Monday to ask Franklin County to take over direct dispatching of Saranac Lake fire and rescue volunteers.

The move sparked concerns from members of the Saranac Lake Volunteer Rescue Squad and the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department.

Last fall, the board agreed to shift all emergency dispatching provided by village fire drivers to Essex and Franklin counties, provided the counties agree and make the necessary infrastructure upgrades. Although fire department and rescue squad officials have argued that local dispatchers are more familiar with the area, village officials have said county dispatchers are better trained and equipped to dispatch local emergency personnel. Franklin County already handles 60 to 70 percent of the emergency calls in the Saranac Lake area through its Enhanced 911 center in Malone.

The resolution the board approved Monday says the village wants Franklin County to provide E-911 dispatch services in the Essex County areas currently served by Saranac Lake fire, police and rescue squads. It also says the village continues to receive direct fire and emergency calls at its fire station and asks Franklin County 911 to take over the phone system currently operated by village fire drivers.

Included in the agenda for Monday’s meeting was a letter dated July 2 and addressed to Rescue Squad President Julie Harjung, Saranac Lake Fire Chief Brendan Keough and Head Fire Driver Rick Yorkey. It says the village will soon transition to direct dispatch from the county and asked them to attend a Thursday meeting at the county 911 center in Malone to review the dispatch procedures and discuss any concerns.

“I’m a little concerned that we’re not getting proper notification, information and say in this,” Harjung told the board. “Yes, I have a letter demanding me to be in (Malone), but that’s not, in my opinion, the proper way to handle the situation.”

Harjung said she was only speaking for the rescue squad as Keough wasn’t able to attend Monday’s meeting. She asked for clarification about the change.

Village Manager John Sweeney said the paging of local firefighters and rescue personnel would be done directly by Malone-based dispatchers instead of village drivers.

“There are several reasons for that,” he said. “We have the (911) service here. It’s being utilized throughout the area. The transition is being requested to be done. That’s what the invite was for.”

Sweeney said people who call the village firehouse at 518-891-2211 would hear a message that says, “If you have an emergency, hang up and dial 911.” If it’s an administrative call, people would be directed to dial the non-emergency number at the firehouse, 518-891-2333.

Harjung asked when the transition to direct dispatch from the county would take place.

“That’s a significant change in the way we’re doing business right now,” she said. “We have some serious concerns with what you’re asking them to do, taking over all our dispatching.”

Sweeney said the timeline for the change depends on the outcome of Thursday’s meeting.

“I apologize if you see it as a summons,” he said. “It was really an invite to come down and discuss it. Your process and your involvement is needed to make it work.”

Rhonda Marrone, a rescue squad and fire department volunteer, said the change would mean there is only one 911 dispatch site for the whole county.

“What is the backup plan?” she asked. “When we had the ice storm in 1998 and Malone was knocked out for a week, Saranac Lake did the dispatching. What is the plan when you have only one system to handle backup and you have an emergency that wipes out communications for the area?”

“Again, these are issues that should be brought to the meeting on the 17th,” Sweeney said. He noted that the Malone 911 center is interconnected with Essex, Clinton and St. Lawrence counties’ 911 centers, which can back up each other.

Mary Brown, also a Saranac Lake rescue and fire department volunteer, asked for a meeting with village officials before the Thursday meeting.

“We do believe there are issues that impact public safety regarding this, and I think it would be helpful if we can go in together,” she said. “I’d like to see a more collegial discussion.”

Trustee Barbara Rice, who’s also a county legislator, said village officials don’t have all the answers, so the best thing would be to sit down with county emergency services personnel.

“We need to get this out there, get the concerns heard and get this finally resolved,” Rice said.

Trustee Allie Pelletieri said the Thursday meeting, scheduled for 9 a.m., isn’t being held at a time that makes it easy for fire and rescue volunteers to attend. He said county 911 officials should come to Saranac Lake and explain the change to “all the board members, all the firemen, all the rescue people in the community, along with the citizens here it’s going to impact.”