911 411: Report suggests Washington Co. 911 needs new facility

Becky Campbell • May 12, 2014 at 9:41 AM

Public Safety Analysis Report: First in a series

Washington County 911 center’s building is in poor repair, and the agency should begin planning for a new facility, according to one of 11 recommendations by a public safety analysis firm.

That was the big takeaway from the 23-page report for Washington County Emergency Communications District Director Bob McNeil. He’s actually been planning for a new facility for a number of years, but now there’s a written recommendation from an independent agency.

It was part of a comprehensive report of a complete public safety analysis conducted by the International City/County Management Association and delivered to the city earlier this year.

“We’re in a 100-year-old building that has a lot of problems,” McNeill said about the current location — originally a U.S. Post Office and later the Washington County Courthouse — on Ashe Street.

Washington County donated the facility for 911 to use and the agency spent $250,000 renovating it before moving into the building. McNeil said it’s a never-ending process of repair to the building.

“We don’t want to spend a half-million dollars or more on this building. We would prefer to find another,” he said.

Building a new facility, though, will require additional funding from both the city and county as well as property on which to build.

McNeill said he has talked to city officials about several pieces of property Johnson City owns, including the old National Guard armory location on West Market Street. What makes it a perfect location is it has line of sight to Buffalo Mountain, which is a requirement for any site 911 builds on because that’s where the group’s emergency communications antenna and repeater are located.

When McNeill looks at properties for sale that meet that requirement, he’s run into some pricey prospects. A location across from Walmart on West Market would cost more than $1 million, he said.

E-911 has two funding sources — phone surcharges from land lines and mobile users and funding from the city and county. Surcharges pay for staffing and equipment while city and county funding pays for the calls to be dispatched to law enforcement, fire and medical services through contract agreements.

“We contract with the city, and we contract with the county to dispatch calls. If we didn’t dispatch calls, we would answer the phone .... and send it to the police department to dispatch the call.”

With no increase in funding, McNeill said, 911 cannot move forward to provide an adequate working environment.

“In order to build a new facility, we would have to have additional funding from the city and the county. (Then) we’d be able to borrow a million and be able to adequately pay that back (with the additional funding),” he said.

McNeill has included a funding increase request in his budget for 2014-15, which includes an additional $50,000 from the city and county, he said.

Whether that would fly remains to be seen, but McNeill said with the ICMA report, he’s hopeful leaders will see how much a new facility is needed.

Johnson City Manager Pete Peterson is not convinced a new building is the answer. He thinks repairs to the current location are affordable and more prudent and could be done for less than McNeil’s estimate of $2.8 million.

Aside from the 911 facility, the ICMA recommended dispatchers begin a deeper call-screening process to eliminate nuisance calls police officers are dispatched to answer. But McNeill said his agency takes direction from the agencies it serves.

“We do call screening. ... Right now, if the public requests to see an officer, the Johnson City Police Department says ‘send them an officer,’ ” he said. “That’s a police department policy, not our policy. Until the police department says don’t send us on certain-type calls (officers will continue to be dispatched.)”

As for staffing levels, the ICMA said 911 should make every effort to fill all vacancies. It’s something McNeil said is an ongoing process.

“As of today, I’m three dispatchers short,” he said recently. “The turnover is relatively normal for this type of work. Some people you hire can’t do the job, they wash out during the training.”

Then there are retirements and medical leaves, which can wipe out more than one position at a time.

“Most of our staff are women ... when they have a baby they don’t come back to work,” he said, adding that they may only want to work part time.

Training required for a dispatcher is lengthy, so McNeil can only hire a certain number of people at a time.

“It takes 12-16 months to completely train them. We have six positions they have to be trained on,” including answering calls, dispatching calls to police, sheriff’s office, fire, EMS, non-emergency tow trucks and the PIN Center. That’s a channel to relay secure information — such as license checks — to and from police officers.

“We really wanted to accomplish two things — are we overstaffed or do we have enough people, (and) our other concern was our facility and equipment replacement. Our call volume versus our people on a shift. That’s what we wanted to know,” McNeill said.

The 911 center is staffed with seven dispatchers during day shift and six for the night shift. There is no standard for minimum staffing levels for 911 centers, but those levels were established by the local communications district.

The ICMA had no recommendations to increase staffing.

On equipment issues, the ICMA recommended 911 develop a dispatching console replacement schedule and a funding plan.

“What they said is to make plans to purchase new equipment. Every 5-10 years we have to replace the consoles,” McNeill said.

And the agency is well ahead of the industry when it comes to the next upgrade of equipment for a new dispatching system called Next Gen 911.

Randall Lewis, 911’s assistant director, said Next Gen 911 is a transition from an analog dispatching system to an IP-based, or date-based, system.

“Instead of just receiving phone calls, we can receive text messaging and video. We’re still trying to develop standards and methodology to put these in place,” Lewis said.

Receiving text 911 calls could be difficult to gather all the pertinent information needed, but Lewis said the new system is still a ways out before being implemented.

“Different states are at different stages in their networks,” he said. “We have purchased the equipment, but this region isn’t ready for it yet.”

McNeill said when the technology is in place, the hearing-impaired community will greatly benefit from it because of the texting ability. But he said he would urge drivers to not text calls to 911 while driving.

McNeill said costs for dispatching increases like any other service, but often requests for increased funding from the city and county are denied.

“As costs go up, our cost for dispatching goes up and the funding needs to go up and not remain at a standstill. There should be adequate funding to pay for our dispatching,” McNeill said. “What happens is, when we ask for additional funds for dispatching, we don’t get it.”

Follow Becky Campbell on Twitter @CampbellinCourt. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/BeckyCampbellJCPress.

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