Charleston County is moving closer to the consolidated dispatching of area fire departments, with County Council this week authorizing agreements to bring dispatchers for the Charleston, Folly Beach, St. Andrews and St. Johns departments into the county's 911 center as early as January.

The expectation is that the response to fires could be improved by dispatching from a central location.

By 2013, dispatching for all of the fire and police departments in the county is to be consolidated in a new operations center the county plans to build. Some dispatching is being consolidated now in the county's current 911 center.

"Last night's agreements will bring in a few of the fire departments earlier than the full consolidation," Jim Lake, director of the county's Consolidated 911 Center, said Wednesday. "We've identified some agencies that we can take on now because of their size."

County Council on Tues- day night authorized the administration to begin drawing up contracts for the four fire services.

Dispatching for the Mount Pleasant, James Island Public Service District, Isle of Palms and Sullivan's Island fire departments is expected to be consolidated with the county operations some time after July 2010, which is the start of the county's next fiscal year. North Charleston dispatchers moved to the county's building earlier this year.

The consolidation involves merging employees from multiple independent governments into a single operation, and that has led to some complex negotiations about pay and benefits. Eventually, the dispatchers will all become county employees.

"For a number of agencies' employees, it would be a pay increase," Lake said in an earlier interview.

In most cases, municipalities will pay salaries and benefits during a transition period.

North Charleston, for example, currently spends more than $1 million on dispatching services.

Charleston Fire Chief Thomas Carr has said the consolidation of fire service dispatching is "critical" to improving public safety. He hopes that having different fire departments using the same dispatchers and radios will lead to better coordination.

Lake said that if municipalities have cooperative agreements in place, consolidated dispatching could help make sure that the closest fire departments are dispatched to a blaze.