A decision by the state Department of Environmental Conservation to close its dispatching office in Ray Brook and move it to Albany has raised concerns that it could negatively affect search-and-rescues and other field operations by DEC personnel in the Adirondacks.
"Obviously, the state is looking at ways to be more efficient all the time, but in the Adirondacks, which is a remote, vast region, you have to ask, is this the safest way to do things?" said state Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury. "I would want to watch this very closely and carefully to see how it worked. People need to understand what the Adirondacks are like, especially for the search and rescue."
The DEC is scheduled to close its Ray Brook dispatching offices within the next six months. DEC spokeswoman Lori Severino said the DEC offered to move four of its seven Ray Brook dispatchers to Albany by Feb. 1. The other three have the option to move within six months. There are currently nine dispatchers in Albany.
Severino said those who didn't accept the transfer will lose their jobs. The Enterprise has learned that in the first round of transfers only one of four dispatchers has accepted.
The Enterprise has talked to numerous people who were concerned that dispatchers in Albany wouldn't be as familiar with the terrain of the 6 million-acre Adirondack Park, which is the size of New Hampshire with the population of Syracuse. Those interviewed said the lack of familiarity by Albany dispatchers could lead to slower response times to search-and-rescues and other emergency situations.
In the Adirondack Park, one of the problems expressed was that many landscapes have redundant names. For instance, in the Tri-Lakes region alone there are at least three ponds with the name Follensby in them - Follensby-Clear, Follensby Junior and the famous Follensby Pond - all miles apart.
There are Wolf ponds in Ray Brook and Tupper Lake, Haystack mountains in the High Peaks and in Ray Brook. There are at least two Black ponds just in the Saranac Lake Wild Forest, and that doesn't include the one in Paul Smiths. The names Mud Pond, Long Pond and Green Pond appear all over the map.
A person who isn't familiar with the Adirondack landscape might require some time to figure out where a call is coming from.
"A lot of dispatchers are local people; a lot of them belong to search-and-rescue groups. They know the area. They know who to call out from any given area," said Roland Patnode, who worked as the DEC regional communications supervisor before retiring in 1990. "That all enhances the response time. Now when asking people who don't have that background, they have to make several phone calls before they get to the right person. That just slows down the response time.
"Lots of times, minutes can mean life or death."
Patnode should know; He set up the DEC's regional dispatch center in his Saranac Lake home in 1976, where it remained until 1991 when it was moved to Ray Brook. The dispatch center was run by his wife, Jackie, when it was in his home.
Severino said Albany dispatchers shouldn't have a problem with the Adirondack geography because they are trained to learn the trails and will have mapping programs to assist them.
"That's all part of their training, particularly in that area because we get a lot of calls from that area so they are going to be very versed and trained on, you know, all the areas that we get calls in," Severino said. "Dispatchers to our forest rangers in that area will still be familiar with the area. That really shouldn't be an issue."
During regular business hours, Ray Brook dispatchers were mainly responsible for regional communications. But on Feb. 1, 2006, Ray Brook dispatchers became responsible for statewide dispatches after hours, which includes nights and weekends. Those statewide and after-hours calls will now be handled by Albany.
Severino said people will still have the option of calling the regular Ray Brook offices for help during its business hours Monday through Friday.
The high-traffic time in the Adirondack backcountry is usually the weekends.
The changes are being made to cut costs and have a centralized dispatch unit in DEC's Albany headquarters, Severino said. She also said the move is being made in order to use a Radio Over Internet Protocol (ROIP) system that has been set up in Albany. That system, too, was criticized locally.
"Their technology that they are using is not public-safety-grade technology," said Essex County Emergency Services Director Don Jaquish, whose county recently upgraded its communications system and did not go with ROIP. "That would be a concern with me as a director. The ROIP is not public-safety technology to use to operate public-safety radio systems. We would not use it."
Franklin County Emergency Services Director Ricky Provost was less critical of the ROIP system because he said "that technology is used a lot throughout the country." He did say that Franklin County tried a similar system called Voice Over Internet Protocol but had to switch from it because it was unreliable.
"We have had a little problem with the VOIP because you are running on the public Internet, and Time Warner shuts their Internet for service or whatever, it interrupts our service," Provost said. "We only use it for a (backup) system now. We had it as our original system, and it really wasn't as bulletproof as what we thought."
But he said he wasn't criticizing the state's system.
"I'm not sure what the state is proposing, so I can't weigh in on their system," he said.
Provost is a little concerned that he doesn't know what is happening with DEC's dispatching because his office works with them in some emergencies.
"I just want to see the plan," he said. "If we need to be adapting our plan to work with these folks, I'd just like a heads-up on it so we can be prepared."
Contact Mike Lynch at 891-2600 ext. 28 or firstname.lastname@example.org.