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Detroit Lakes State Patrol dispatch center moving to Duluth

Barring some unforeseen change of plan, the State Patrol dispatch office in Detroit Lakes will be closed within the next few years and consolidated into a new regional office in Duluth.

The State Patrol has decided that Duluth and Rochester will join Roseville as the patrol's three consolidated Public Safety Answering Points in the state -- replacing centers in Detroit Lakes, Virginia, Thief River Falls, Brainerd, Marshall, Mankato and St. Cloud.

The 12-county State Patrol district headquartered in Detroit Lakes now handles dispatch work for state troopers, DNR officers, and federal agencies, as well as MnDOT plow drivers and a number of others, said Dayle Peterson, dispatch supervisor in Detroit Lakes.

He oversees four dispatchers with a combined experience of well over 100 years.

While most local police, fire and medical calls are now dispatched through the Becker County Sheriff's Department -- and will continue to be -- some 911 emergency calls will end up being handled by dispatchers in Duluth, and that won't necessarily be a good thing for area residents, said Becker County Sheriff Tim Gordon.

"Bigger isn't always better," he said of the state's plans to consolidate dispatch services.

He is most concerned about losing the local dispatchers, who know the community well and can guide emergency workers to destinations that otherwise might difficult to find.

"Here you have people who belong to the community, it does add a flavor," he said. "I don't care what anybody says -- I'll tell the governor that."

Peterson echoed that worry.

"The biggest concern that we as operators have is that they will take away some of the local knowledge of the area," he said. "To go from 12 counties to 40 counties -- that's a big area."

But he believes the transition will be seamless once it occurs. "It will take a while to get (the system) up, but once it's up, it will be like the Internet," he said.

Already "you can talk on a portable radio from here to Rochester," he added.

Lt. Matt Langer of the State Patrol in St. Paul said plans are in the infancy stage.

"Basically, now that the two sites are identified we can move forward in earnest and find how much it's going to cost to get those two sites up and operational," Langer said.

"One of the challenges is that we have to try to take care of employees who work in those sites that will eventually close. It's not happening overnight."

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed an executive order in January charging a work group with developing a comprehensive strategy for regionally based Public Safety Answering Points to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the service.

Langer said the number of troopers in the Duluth district shouldn't change, but Capt. Steve Stromback, who supervises the Duluth district, said the number of dispatchers needed will increase. The size of the new building and the costs associated with it haven't been determined.

Gordon said the consolidation issue has been discussed for a half-dozen years, but he had hoped Detroit Lakes would be selected as one of the consolidated headquarters. As the plan stands, there won't be any State Patrol dispatchers in the western part of the state.

It is expected to be at least two years before the "Next Generation 911" consolidated system is up and running.

The idea is to develop a system that can take emergency calls or messages from "any device, anytime, anywhere," as opposed to the existing system that was designed to take calls from landline telephones, according to the Department of Public Safety's Website.

"I think the changeover is going to be difficult," Gordon said. "I'm hoping our relationship with the State Patrol and that cooperation and collaboration will continue to exist -- right now I can pick up the phone and talk to people at the State Patrol and I know everyone. When you get geographically too large, you lose some of that."

The county will face some large expenses in the near future to ensure that it is ready for the conversion to digital radio in 2012, he added.

"With this new generation 911, there are too many questions and not enough answers to know how effective and efficient it's going to be."

(Mark Stodghill of the Duluth News Tribune contributed to this story.)