The recent flurry of wintry weather has brought with it renewed calls by the North Tonawanda Police union for Niagara County to rethink its centralized 911 system at the Sheriff's Department.
"A ton of problems as far as safety goes and just communication in general," says NT Police Benevolent Association Spokesman and Patrolman Erik Herbert about Niagara County's 911 system.
The county converted to the centralized system in 2012 in an attempt to consolidate duplicated services, save money and comply with new federal bandwidth mandates. Herbert says all reasons are laudable, but the system has consistently not worked for North Tonawanda Police, despite extensive training.
He says the system is putting the public at risk because of what he calls a "dramatic" increase in dropped calls, response delays and safety issues created - for example, not being able to talk with other police, fire and emergency agencies.
"One of the lines the county uses is 'interoperability' - we want this whole, interactive, integrated cohesive system,' but North Tonawanda borders Tonawanda obviously," Herbert reminds, "Very frequently, we work - and I'm talking multiple times a month - we've helped each other, being bordering agencies and we can't even talk to them."
The NTPBA says in recent years, 911 calls have topped 30,000 in Niagara County. Herbert estimates about 10 percent of those are from North Tonawanda. However, he says, there now is "a fight for airtime" among 30 Niagara County agencies using the same channel.
"What happens now, that call goes through the Niagara County dispatch center, which is in Lockport," Herbert says. "When that call is dispatched out, it's dispatched on a channel that is used by all the sheriffs, all the state police, all the smaller departments in Niagara County and it's all on the same channel. So if someone else is talking on it throughout the whole county, I can't talk."
"Additionally, the heavy air traffic forces officers to switch between two channels during a particular call, which distracts the officer while reacting to real-time events at the scene," said NTPBA President Daryl Truty in a Facebook post.
"Cluttered airways and delayed response was the story of the day here in North Tonawanda," said Truty of last week's wind storm. "The current Niagara County dispatch is too easily overwhelmed. There is not one community in Niagara County that would find it acceptable to know that dispatch times have been negatively affected by more than 50 percent, resulting in officers taking longer to arrive on scene."
Herbert says the NTPBA fully supports 911 employees, but the police union wants to return to operating their own system. WBFO was unsuccessful in reaching the Niagara County Sheriff for comment.