North Whatcom County residents could see faster response times from their local law enforcement as police departments switch dispatch services.
Blaine and Lynden police officers will soon be dispatched by What-Comm, the countywide 911 call center managed by Bellingham police. Currently, Blaine, Lynden and Sumas police are dispatched by Customs and Border Protection as part of a free service agreement that stretches back decades.
While Blaine and Lynden make the switch, Sumas police will continue to use Customs and Border Protection services — one of the only local law enforcement agencies in the U.S. to do so.
When someone in northern Whatcom County calls 911, a dispatcher from What-Comm answers. Calls from Blaine, Lynden and Sumas are then transferred to dispatch services run by Customs and Border Protection, who then send officers from one of the three law enforcement agencies.
The transfer takes roughly 20 to 30 seconds, according to Greg Erickson, deputy director for What-Comm. Eliminating that transfer will not only cut down on wait times, but also increase safety, he said.
“I think it will be a real positive change for people that live in those communities.” Erickson said. “You think about that person who is experiencing their worst nightmare type of call … and the last thing you want to hear is ‘Stay on the line, I’ll transfer you.’ You want to hear someone taking your information right now and getting help to you right now. …Seconds really can count at times, depending on the call.”
Erickson said the agencies will be working to educate the public during the transitions, as some county residents are used to calling the police departments or Customs and Border Protection directly, rather than 911. He said all agencies are working together to make it a smooth transition.
Erickson said the move will also increase communication between local law enforcement agencies. Several law enforcement agencies near the border have two radio systems in patrol cars that allow them to hear Customs and Border Protection calls and the county’s calls.
“We need to learn more about them and they need to learn more about us. We want to make sure we’re comfortable with what they need,” Erickson said. “We’re excited and we’re looking forward to it. It’s going to be better service to our communities.”
The radio frequency used by Customs and Border Protection is encrypted, but What-Comm’s is not. In order for the agencies to communicate between the two frequencies, the officers have to switch to the county frequency.
By having everyone on the same frequency, the officers will now be able to speak back and forth as needed, Erickson said.
Lt. Ryan King with Blaine police said communicating between the two frequencies doesn’t work well at times and information can be lost. He said having consistency after the switch will be helpful.
Joining What-Comm also provides a boost in technology for Lynden and Blaine. Officers will now get a computer-aided dispatch system, or CAD, in patrol cars that allows them to see more detailed information for 911 calls and locations.
“It will provide up-to-date call information as officers are responding. That’s a big thing because calls can change very rapidly so the best current information we can get en route helps us develop a plan in how we approach that call,” King said.
Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said he thought Blaine and Lynden switching to What-Comm was a good idea. He said the agencies often work closely together and having them on the same frequency will save time "in situations where seconds are critical." Elfo said the upgraded technology will also allow the departments to always be ready to help each other.
The move will cost the cities about $150,000 each, for the upgrades in technology and the annual fee paid to use What-Comm’s services. Both police departments are aiming for an Oct. 1 start date. For ongoing years, the annual fee, which the cities will pay from their general funds, will be assessed and changed depending on call load.
Erickson said with the addition of Blaine and Lynden, two new dispatchers will be hired to help handle calls. He said the additional staff will allow them to better spread out the work and should improve What-Comm's services for all agencies they serve.
The change will also require dispatchers to become more familiar with those cities’ geographies and any special situations where a specific dispatcher may be needed, such as for the Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden.
Chief John Billester with Lynden police said he doesn’t expect the department’s good working relationship with Customs and Border Protection to change just because the main dispatch center does. Being a small police agency, Billester said it’s nice to have Customs and Border Protection as backup if needed, and the agencies will continue to work together on border issues.
Erickson said he didn't want Blaine and Lynden switching dispatchers to be seen as a slight on Customs and Border Protection services, adding that the agency has done the best it can as part of an agreement that's outside the agency's normal duties.
Jason Givens, a Customs and Border Protection spokesperson, said the U.S. Border Patrol has enjoyed a longstanding relationship with Blaine, Lynden and Sumas, noting the police departments have operated on shared radio system for decades.
"The role of dispatching emergency calls to local law enforcement officers has been an additional function of the Blaine Sector Communications Center for over 60 years. We are aware the Lynden and Blaine Police Departments are considering other options for future dispatch services. Regardless of the options they choose, we look forward to the continued mutual support between our agencies," Givens said.
A unique partnership
For Sumas, Police Chief Daniel DeBruin said the department’s working agreement with Customs and Border Protection remains unchanged, a unique service in the Pacific Northwest area.
DeBruin said Sumas police weren’t involved in talks to join What-Comm, in part because the department was in a transition period as he took over as Chief and due to being short-staffed. DeBruin said he felt it was a higher priority to get the staffing levels back up to normal.
He also said the cost for joining would be a big challenge for the city, as Customs and Border Protection’s services are free. He said if Sumas were to consider joining in the future, the city would have to determine whether it can come up with the funds.
“We have a dispatch system, one that we’ve been using for a long time. …In the future there may be some talks … As of right now we’ve been satisfied with what’s going on,” DeBruin said. “We have a very close working relationship with border patrol and having a station here in Sumas, we need the ability to communicate seamlessly with them.”
DeBruin said his officers have become adept at using the two radio systems and would need them regardless because Sumas is a border town, noting that the agencies often assist each other when needed.
DeBruin said he didn’t believe residents were losing that much time, as fire-related calls are transferred to a different dispatch station as well. He acknowledged having a CAD system would be beneficial for officers, as the current computers in patrol cars are limited in their functions. For now, there are no plans to switch dispatch centers, he said.
“What it comes down to is we have a system that’s working. Is it the best system out there? I don’t know. At the same time, I think it’s good to see how things go with the other agencies we work closely with and see how making the move over there goes," DeBruin said. “We’re kind of in a wait and see period. Things seem to be progressing along with what we’ve got going on here.”