Walworth County Government Center

As Walworth County considers overhauling its emergency communications equipment, a local fire chief suggests the county explore establishing an independent dispatch center to handle calls.

A consultant reviewed the county’s communications infrastructure last year and concluded that some radios, towers and microwave antennas are nearing the end of their useful lives.

In his 2019 budget, Walworth County Administrator Dave Bretl wrote that buying new equipment could cost about $25.1 million over four years beginning in 2020.

The county likely would have to borrow money for the project, which would end its streak of being debt-free, he wrote.

Bretl said the county board’s executive committee likely will discuss the equipment overhaul when it meets March 18.

The discussions come at a pivotal time as the Wisconsin Office of Emergency Communications is considering upgrades to its statewide communication infrastructure. The county board Tuesday will vote on a resolution urging the state to engage counties and local governments in that process.

“Rather than duplicating a bunch of stuff that has to be done for the State Patrol and corrections and DNR and all their agencies, why not just build a single system that can serve everybody?” Bretl asked. “So we’re making that pitch to the state.”

The equipment discussions also come as the Walworth County Fire/EMS Study Committee meets monthly to address issues facing fire and EMS departments in the county.

Amid talks of a radio equipment overhaul, some committee members have suggested creating an independent dispatch center similar to the Rock County Communications Center.

Delavan, Whitewater, Lake Geneva and the Walworth County Sheriff’s Office currently have dispatch centers. The sheriff’s office center, called the Walworth County Communications Center, takes calls for 13 law enforcement and 13 fire/rescue departments throughout the county.

Rock County’s dispatch center operates separately from the Rock County Sheriff’s Office and takes calls for all county law enforcement, fire and EMS departments.

Bruce Vander Veen, chief of the Sharon Fire/EMS Department and a member of the study committee, said his department uses the Walworth County Communications Center for emergency dispatch.

Vander Veen supports exploring an independent dispatch center. He said the county’s dispatch center has not been fully staffed at times and employees are “overworked.” He said the center has added several fire and EMS departments over the years and will need to expand as the county grows.

“If we’re going to move forward in the county with a radio system ... it would be logical to explore moving to an independent, consolidated dispatch center,” he said.

Vander Veen suggested the county consider spending more than $25.1 million to “make the system what it should be: the best product possible.”

“Every emergency starts with a phone call,” he said.

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