For the first time in decades, Munhall residents need to call 911 for any emergency.
Shortly before 8 a.m. on Tuesday, the borough officially switched from running its own small emergency dispatch center to using the services of the Allegheny County 911 system. Tuesday’s change only applies to fire and police emergencies as Munhall transferred its ambulance dispatching to County 911 more than 16 months ago.
Police Chief Patrick Campbell released a statement making the formal announcement and thanking dispatchers who helped to protect the community.
“In my 19 years with the Munhall Police Department, I have never worked a shift without one of you on the other end of the radio,” Campbell said. “We have all put our lives in your hands 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and you never let us down.”
Munhall council president Dan Lloyd said three of the four dispatchers the borough employed as of this month accepted jobs with the public works department and the fourth dispatcher retired. Lloyd said he believes the three former dispatchers who remained with the borough will retain their seniority in their new positions.
The switch to County 911 has been fiercely debated in Munhall for months, continuing even after council voted 6-1 in April to close the borough dispatch. Councilman Joe Ballas was the lone opponent, but Mayor Ray Bodnar vehemently opposed the motion. The concern largely revolved around losing the first-hand knowledge of the area that local dispatchers possess. But Lloyd said the move to join the vast majority of municipalities that already have been using the County 911 network for years not only will save Munhall millions of dollars during the next 10 years, but will provide residents with emergency services that are just as good if not superior to those offered by the local dispatch.
“Everybody is afraid of change, but if you don’t change, you become kind of an albatross,” Lloyd explained. “Almost every town in a county with 130 municipalities has made this change except for a handful. It’s not like we’re the first. We’re one of the last.”
Lloyd said the borough was paying for duplicate services because residents already pay for 911 through their phone bills and that duplication of services cost the borough about $250,000 in equipment costs each year.
One big money saver will be doing away with the old VHF (very high frequency) system being phased out by emergency agencies and upgrading to the UHF (ultra high frequency) platform employed by County 911 and most other municipalities.
“The problem was that all the other municipalities around us moved to UHF when they switched over to 911 before us,” he said. “They still have equipment that’s compatible to talk to us, but they weren’t going to continue to maintain that outdated equipment just to communicate with Munhall. That was putting our firemen and police at risk.”
Lloyd said most residents probably didn’t even realize Munhall Area Prehospital Services seamlessly made the switch in early 2013 and many people still called 911 for emergencies. That meant time would be lost when county dispatchers would have to act as a middleman to then loop in Munhall fire and police.
“Who do you think got more calls from Munhall residents when there was an emergency: 911 or 412-464-7300?” Lloyd said. “It was 911 because everyone knows from the time they’re a little kid to dial 911.”
The bottom line, Lloyd said, is moving to the county system will be less expensive in the long run and far more efficient — especially as new technologies continue to emerge.
“We live in a bubble here in Munhall,” he said. “We always want to think we can do everything better. But everyone who has gone to see the county dispatch center has said it’s far superior to what we have. Our residents will absolutely be as safe as they were before, probably safer.”