Call 911: Emergency providers question priorities in Monroe
July 19, 2002
With a new UHF radio system on the way, Monroe County, W.Va., emergency providers recently said they question the leadership and priorities at the 911 center that may jeopardize residents’ lives.
After seven years of residents paying 911 fees, the county is not properly mapped, dispatchers are not adequately trained and new radios should have been installed years ago.
Kelly C. Havens with Medic One, the county’s mobile paramedic unit, said the 911 center operates by the seat of its pants.
“There’s no direction.” That often means no directions from dispatchers to get to an emergency scene. “It’s like they’re dispatching ice cream trucks … When that person calls in, seconds count,” Havens said.
Richard Miller, chief of the Lindside Volunteer Fire Department, said he regularly listens to the scanner to hear information he needs to get to an emergency scene. A new resident in Wikel didn’t know how to give directions to a brush fire on her property. “We lucked out when we saw smoke.”
Havens said she responded to a call about an unresponsive baby in Peterstown and could not get good directions. “I spent 10 minutes no more than 100 yards from this residence.”
Havens and Miller said the 911 advisory committee, appointed when residents began paying a 911 fee on their telephone lines, wrote policies and procedures to reduce human error in responding to emergencies. Both were members of the committee. They were told the county would be mapped and dispatchers would be trained to provide pre-arrival instructions. To accomplish the latter, two dispatchers would work each shift so one could give instructions and the other could monitor calls.
Havens said the advisory committee had no authority and its requests fell on deaf ears. The board met once or twice the past four years. “We saw that it was absolutely fruitless.”
While county agencies upgraded paramedic care, first-responder medical care and fire service, the 911 center “sat stagnant.” Communities were either poorly mapped or not mapped at all, she said. Yet, the county provided raises for dispatchers and cellular phones for police officers, county commissioners and magistrates. Fire and EMS agencies paid for their own cellular phones. “What makes those departments any more important than our departments?”
Frequent lightning strikes disable the dispatching system. Havens said, “We should never be in this position.” Communications have not improved in seven years, other than someone can dial 911 and get a voice on the other end – if he’s lucky.
The 911 center began operations in late 1995.
A June 4 lightning strike burned up two communication links at the courthouse. Under the deal with Motorola, the county will receive a $54,000 discount by trading in six base stations. Combined with a $50,000 state grant, the county had enough money for a down payment on a $273,554 system that includes all new radios and a second communications tower site near Peterstown. The county is financing $223,554 in a six-year lease. The monthly payment will be $3,789. Mobile radios will be available to every department for the first time in the county’s history.
Miller said the lease payment for the new radio system shows a lack of financial management, not money. “There was supposed to have been a kitty set aside.” After a five-year period, each department’s radios would be bought out and replaced with new radios.
Director Jeff Dillon said the 911 center collects $183,000 annually with its $2.65 monthly surcharge for line telephones. That total includes a pro-rated reimbursement for cellular telephones. The budget pays about $100,000 in salaries, about $14,000 to maintain trunk lines to the telephone company and about $48,000 in equipment costs. After utilities, that leaves about $3,000 to $4,000 for incidentals and emergencies. The lease payments will come from that narrow margin.
“The reason we hadn’t done it before is just money.” The county recently paid off its lease for the original equipment. “We’re barely affording to do it now.”
County Commission president Craig Mohler said the Y2K upgrade used most of the surplus in the 911 center fund. Trying to maintain services further eroded any extra money collected during the first year before the 911 center went online. The county did not have excess money to put into a radio fund. “We were pretty much at a break even.”
The county commission gave 911 center employees a raise when it gave other courthouse employees a raise. He added county employees are generally underpaid and the commission was trying to establish equity.
Commissioners agreed to buy cellular phones for law enforcement officers because they did not have handheld radios. The phones provided private conversations for officers who didn’t want calls discussed on police scanners many residents have in their homes. State Police and Division of Natural Resources officers are not dispatched through the 911 center.
Mohler added the county will likely remove the phones due to budget concerns once the new radio system is in place.
Dillon agreed dispatcher training is not what he would like due to money and liability concerns. Early plans were to provide two dispatchers each shift so one could provide CPR or childbirth instructions while the other handled the switchboard. “It’s a great program if you can do it.” All dispatchers received the basic training course.
As for mapping, “We’re still working on it.”
Mohler said some mapping was done by the 911 center and the U.S. Postal Service. Mapping is a problem around the state, and state officials have indicated they will provide technical and financial assistance to some counties.
Dillon said he’s been told the state is considering uniform mapping standards. If that happens, counties that have finished mapping may have to start over with new standards.
The providers said Dillon hasn’t responded to their requests to discuss and implement a contingency plan after the June 4 lightning strikes that left the center permanently disabled.
Dillon said the county was forced to throw some good money after bad to get the system running while the new radio system is forthcoming. Technicians with 20 years of experience told him they never saw such a burned-out system after a storm strike. He and technicians worked day and night to re-establish some service. “During the last two weeks, it was everything that we could do to bring it back up … I’m sorry it didn’t meet their expectations, and I wish I had that magic wand.”
Miller said the complaints are being aired now because the county is making another financial commitment for the new radios. Dillon is a good technician, but he lacks management skills and the 911 center needs to move forward. “Somebody’s going to have to take a stand.”
Havens and Miller said they have nothing personal against the dispatchers and their complaints do not amount to a turf war between 911 and providers.
Miller said providers around the county are disgusted.
Havens said, “There’s no turf there … When somebody dials 911, the emergency has already started … We feel a huge responsibility … It’s not that any of us wants to control 911.” However, agencies have tried to make up for deficiencies the 911 center suffers.
Jeanie Ratliff, spokeswoman for Union Rescue, said the lack of trained dispatchers takes points off the ambulance company’s relicensing. Medic One operates under the auspices of Union Rescue. Agencies need to work well together and that’s not happening.
Mohler said providers have not come to the county commission with their complaints. “That seems odd to me. It’s nitpicking … To me, it seems to be more of a personality problem.”
He said the commission interviewed four or five candidates for the 911 director’s job and chose Dillon. “I think Jeff has done a great job.” Monroe was ahead of Greenbrier and Summers counties in implementing 911, although both of those counties began discussions before Monroe. In addition, Dillon is emergency services director and computer troubleshooter for the courthouse. He has brought dispatcher concerns to the commission for appropriate action.
Mohler added volunteer agencies have done a good job. “I think they do what they do very well, and I’m glad they’re in the county.”
Shane Ashley, chief of the Union Community Volunteer Fire Department, said, “There are good people on both sides of this thing.” The county commission should have involved agencies in the radio deal. He said county emergency communications have improved with the 911 center. Problems were dealt with at the center and firefighters can make mistakes on calls as well as dispatchers. “We’re all in this together … That’s what we need to put our focus on.”
Dillon said, “Everybody has their opinion on how things ought to go.” He said he has tried his best.
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(© 2002 The Register-Herald, Beckley, W.Va. Republished with permission.)