911 calls from Whittier, Alaska will now be forwarded to Sitka’s police dispatchers. The Sitka Assembly approved the contract last week (“Whittier, Alaska” by daihung is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.)

Residents of Whittier and Girdwood will now have their 9-1-1 calls answered over 500 miles away – in Sitka. The Sitka Assembly on Tuesday (2-28-23) approved a contract worth $55,000 to provide dispatch services for those two communities, in a move Sitka’s police chief says will help him shore up efforts to recruit local dispatchers.

The Sitka Police Department is struggling to attract and retain dispatchers. Police Chief Robert Baty said that the additional funds from Whittier would help the police department better recruit for the open positions. He said the additional calls would amount to only minutes a day added to the workload for dispatchers.

“There’s really no training curve for us because the process and the computer programs and whatnot that Whittier uses are the same as ours,” Baty said. “We pick up zero paperwork associated with this. It’s literally going to be data entry and phone calls.”

Whittier has a population of 273 according to a 2021 estimate. Their police department consists of six officers, a lieutenant and a chief of police, and they are currently contracted to provide police services to the Girdwood area. And Baty said their public safety office handles around 4,000 service calls a year – which is roughly eleven calls a day – but around 80 percent of those calls are “self-initiated,” meaning an officer is going to do a security check or a public appearance.

Baty said the arrangement with Whittier would be similar to how the police department now handles calls for the Sitka Fire Department.

“With the same model we’ve taken on the fire department’s dispatch, and there’s been no hiccups in that,” Baty said. “And, of course, I can’t speak for Chief Warren, but I think he would agree with me that their response times have increased and their ability to deal with the true nature of their calls has increased.”

Only one member of the public commented on the contract, and he was supportive. Most assembly members were on board as well.

“I was definitely concerned…when I first read it, but I think going through it and then having Chief Baty come up and explain it out, it’s definitely alleviated those concerns that they can handle the extra workload,” said assembly member Chris Ystad. “I definitely appreciate the…creative way of finding different revenue sources for recruitment and retention. So this is definitely something I’ll support.”

The contract with Whittier is for 2 years, with three possible one year extensions. Assembly member Crystal Duncan asked about pay increases, and what would happen to the dispatchers’ pay when the contract term ends. City administrator John Leach said the answer was a bit complicated. 

“Salaries for represented employees have already been set through the bargaining agreements. And as far as whether or not the salary will go up, and how long it will stay, that’s to be determined,” Leach said. “We have to do what’s called a letter of agreement with the bargaining unit. So we’ll still need to work that piece out to to get the specifics nailed down.”

Mayor Steven Eisenbiesz said early on he’d shared concerns about staffing, but those concerns had been assuaged. And he added if the partnership doesn’t end up working, the city has options.

“We do have a 60-day out, which was very important to me that, should it not work, we can get out,” he said.

“Valdez was the town with the previous contract,” he added. “If it worked for them, I’m pretty sure we can find a way to make it work here.” 

The assembly approved the contract unanimously. 

NOTE: Sitka Police Lieutenant Jean Achee is the brother of Whittier Police Chief Andre Achee. This information was not disclosed at the  assembly table during contract deliberations, or in KCAW’s initial reporting on the matter. 

KCAW spoke with municipal administrator John Leach, who said the disclosure wasn’t necessary because there’s no actual or implied conflict of interest, since neither Whittier’s police chief Achee nor Sitka’s lieutenant Achee will benefit financially from the contract. Sitka applied for the contract through a public “request for proposals” process, and was chosen from several applicants. The revenue will go into Sitka’s General Fund, and not directly into the police department’s coffers.