Northampton County/Bethlehem City 911
If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound? Philosophers have debated this riddle inconclusively for hundreds of years. There is no mystery, however, concerning emergency calls. If someone calls 911, and no one is there to hear it, rest assured that there will be numerous complaints. It’s happened before in Northampton County, when migration to a new emergency dispatch system was accompanied by loud criticisms, a lawsuit and an election in which several county officials lost their seats. So when Bethlehem
City and Northampton county were forced by the state to consolidate emergency calls under the county’s roof by July 1, there had to be concerns about problems that would ensue from implementation of a new CAD system (911’s computer brain). There had to be worries about whether county dispatchers could handle the increased call volume from a city of 76,000. But guess what? County Executive Lamont McClure and Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez have already flipped the switch. They announced at a June 10 news conference that county dispatchers have been handling Bethlehem calls without incident since March 26.
Previously, the county 911 dispatchers were already fielding 97,000 emergency calls a year, along with 296,000 non-emergency calls. Bethlehem was getting about 40,000 emergency and 50,000 nonemergency calls. In addition, Bethlehem operators could use 160 remote cameras to assist officers responding to crime or other emergencies in real time. Northampton County’s 911 facility, located in Upper Nazareth Township at the Gracedale campus, is now dispatching all emergency and nonemergency calls. This includes the Lehigh County portion of Bethlehem. The city has retained 10 of its dispatchers to continue monitoring city cameras and work at a soon-to-be announced Bethlehem Service Center.
In order to handle the expected increase in call volume, Northampton County Council approved 26 new 911 positions in 2017, including six supervisors and 20 dispatchers. Emergency Management Services Director Todd Weaver said these positions are being added to the current staff of 44 dispatchers.
Only one or two Bethlehem dispatchers went to Northampton County. Those not retained went to other counties. The starting salary for an emergency dispatcher in Northampton County is $17 per hour, while it is $18.88 per hour in Monroe and $21 per hour in Lehigh. McClure said the Northampton County pension and generous medical benefits still make Northampton County an attractive choice.
Donchez called the consolidation “a great example of professionalism and cooperation. This is the way government should work.”
Both the mayor and the executive stressed the importance of public safety. “This is one thing we must get right for the city of Bethlehem,” said McClure.
Though Northampton County budgeted $1.9 million for the consolidation, it has only spent $1.3 million. Its major expense was the acquisition of Bethlehem’s CAD. According to dispatchers, there is one problem. The new CAD fails to deliver an audible alert, called a “dinger,” indicating there’s an incoming call.
No one in Bethlehem or Northampton County had any desire to change two emergency dispatch systems that work. Harrisburg felt otherwise. The state gave Bethlehem, Allentown and Lehigh and Northampton counties an ultimatum – consolidate or lose state funding. The state did make $8.1 million available to ease the pain. Allentown opted to consolidate with Lehigh County, while Bethlehem went with Northampton. In addition to the city and county consolidation, both counties are connected to each other. If one goes down, the other can act as a back-up.